All Grown Up

Innovative Programs for Active Older Adults

Perhaps you've heard the saying "70 is the new 60" or "60 is the new 50," in reference to someone's age. Well, it is true that many older adults these days are more interested than ever in staying physically fit, and the mature market—typically considered to include those 55 and older—is the fastest growing fitness market in the world. In 2010, 13 percent of the U.S. population was at least 65 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and five years later that had risen to nearly 15 percent. And it's estimated that the over-65 population will grow around 38 percent between 2015 and 2025, to nearly 66 million older adults.

So as the baby boomers are booming into their golden years, what are some ways that parks, municipalities and private entities are stepping up efforts to engage and accommodate this population, whether through fitness or social offerings? Teresa Grodsky has worked for more than 40 years in parks and recreation in Illinois, mostly with older adults, and has spoken at many state and regional conferences. Currently she's the active adult coordinator for the Addison Park District, and she said that facilities should experiment with different programs, since patrons' tastes and desires are always evolving. "Don't be afraid to get rid of the old tired stuff and bring in new stuff," she said. "You may have things that you've always done even though it's just not working, but you don't have the heart to just pitch it."

Grodsky added that since they cater to people in their 50s to those in their 90s, it can be challenging. "The big worry for us about five or 10 years ago was that the baby boomers are coming, and what are we going to do. Well, they're already here and already getting integrated into the programs, so it's just the volume of them. We just have to be prepared for that and for the different things that they like to do."

So what do the "younger" folks—those in their 50s and 60s—like to participate in? "They really want the new, more active kinds of things," Grodsky said, which might include volleyball or softball. "With the fitness stuff, you really have to watch what the trends are."

For instance, she said that lately, pickleball has become huge. "At our fitness center, we offer open pickleball; you pay to be there, and can play pickleball with anybody. That's typically a younger group."

Grodsky has also noticed more adventure sports being offered, mentioning a senior group she knows of that has partnered with L.L. Bean to offer kayaking and archery, with L.L. Bean providing the necessary equipment. "I have a friend who took a group to an indoor skydiving place! So I think we just have to not be afraid to try anything."

On the other end of the spectrum, Grodsky said they still cater to many people who are in their 80s or 90s. Every Friday they have drop-in canasta and pinochle, and Mahjong is currently very popular. They host a senior club that meets every Tuesday, and often more than 100 people show up.

Many older adults these days are more interested than ever in staying physically fit, and the mature market—typically considered to include those 55 and older—is the fastest growing fitness market in the world.

"They come and eat sweet rolls and play cards and play dominoes—it's a very social thing," she said. "Typically they had a speaker or a program of some sort, and they hated it! They asked me when I came not to do it because this was their social time."

She explained that many of the oldest folks still drive a car and live in their own home. "We have so many vibrant people in their late 80s and 90s, and that has a lot to do with the fact that there have been programs for them to be in. In fact, we have so many 90s that we started a Nifty Nineties club, every year honoring the people who have turned 90."

Grodsky added that when asked about their secrets of longevity, amid the usual jokes about chasing women or drinking martinis, many say that simply having a place to go every week has been crucial.

But make no mistake, many of the oldest patrons are interested in fitness offerings as well, along with the younger seniors. "We do have an exercise class here three times a week at the community rec center, and it's a drop-in type program," Grodsky said, adding that it's only $1 to participate. "But our fitness center does have more than basic exercise. There's Zumba Gold, chair yoga and tai chi. We have SilverSneakers here at the fitness center."

She said they also have a pool that is very popular, especially for water aerobics. "They know how good the water is for your joints. Things you couldn't do in regular exercise class you certainly could do in water aerobics. The kind of fitness things that are available for active adults is huge now."

SilverSneakers is a fitness program for those 65 and older, which comes free with qualifying health plans, including Medicare. The program includes unlimited access to every participating fitness center and gym in their network, numbering more than 14,000 locations. Amenities such as treadmills, weights and pools are included. There are also fitness classes available, led by certified instructors at not only gyms, but also parks, community centers and other local venues. The classes can be modified for different fitness levels, and focus on muscle strength and range of movement, stability and balance. The more than 70 types of classes include tai chi, boot camp and yoga.

While some private fitness and health clubs are actively marketing to older adults, most are not yet tapping into this growing market, according to Dan Ritchie, whose broad background in the fitness industry includes training and management. Ritchie specializes in training for special populations, such as those with Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's or cerebral palsy. In 2014 he was named Personal Trainer of the Year by Personal Fitness Professional magazine.


"When you consider there are 75 million baby boomers still living and another 30 million-plus traditionalist generation (those born before 1946), you're looking at a huge market that has a handful of fitness services," Ritchie said, adding that he's slowly seeing more franchises popping up that cater to mature adults. "We're seeing more activities pick up like pickleball and other leisure activities, but overall this market is massively underserved."

He added, "We are noticing that retirement communities are much more focused on recreation and physical activity centers, adding full fitness centers, pools and more—much more than the old activity room and shuffleboard of the past."

But for fitness facilities to attract the mature population, he said they need to offer programs specific to their needs, their wants and their fitness and functional levels. "Of course, it starts with marketing to them in the first place, but if your program is really geared for 30-year-olds it won't matter as they won't be able to really enjoy it as it isn't the right fit."

Specifically to cater to older adults and those with medical conditions, Ritchie and his partner Cody Sipe opened a Miracles Fitness franchise in Lafayette, Ind. "Our average age is 60, and we only market to 55-plus, but we do have all ages," Ritchie said. "We opened it in 2007 as baby boomers were beginning to turn 60 by 10,000 a day, and we noticed no one was marketing to, catering to or serving this demographic, so we decided to stop talking about it and start doing it."

He added that small group personal training for older adults seems to be a growing trend. "One-on-one is still popular, but the cost is prohibitive for many in the long term."

Of course, there are many differences when working with a 70-year-old versus a 30-year-old if you're a trainer or exercise instructor. And while there are certification programs available that focus on older adult training, Ritchie and Sipe felt that most of them were inadequate. So in 2013 they founded the Functional Aging Institute (FAI), to share their innovative and science-based training programs with other trainers around the world. FAI offers two key certifications aimed at helping fitness professionals be more effective when working with the senior population: Functional Aging Specialist and Functional Aging Group Exercise Specialist. Other certification and continuing education opportunities include Tai Chi Basic Certification, Functional Core and Balance Program, Physiology of Aging, Understanding the Mature Adult and many more. These programs can help in designing safe and effective functional exercise programs for low, moderate and high-functioning clients, boosting the fitness professional's confidence when working with this growing population. "We train trainers to learn functional levels and functional aging training models so they can train people at an appropriate level to yield life-changing results for years to come," Ritchie said.

Many parks and recreation agencies are reinventing themselves to meet the wants and needs of their aging constituents by offering more educational and arts programs, adult day programs and fitness classes, and social and volunteer opportunities. In fact, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is engaging in a Healthy Aging in Parks initiative, a campaign to improve and maintain the health and well-being of older adults by creating opportunities for physical activities through parks and recreation.


Lesha Spencer-Brown, a program manager at NRPA who's involved with this initiative, said they're focused on making sure that all of their programs are evidence-based, so they know the outcomes will be beneficial for older adults with very different chronic diseases, so that they can improve their overall health. But she added that it's not only about providing physical benefits—they also want to increase community and social engagement among older adults and help them to become vital contributors to their communities as well. "We want to equip parks and rec agencies with the skills and tools to be able to serve this rapidly growing population because we know that their needs and desires vary," Spencer-Brown said.

As part of their initiative, NRPA is also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Arthritis Foundation. Spencer-Brown said that these organizations can help expand the availability of the programs in parks and rec because they have access to the community and they're great settings for people to engage in a wide variety of programs and services. "We typically offer instructor and training grants to agencies so they're able to train their staff to lead one or more of the programs that we are disseminating through the CDC, and we are also working on developing relationships between parks and rec and the healthcare community."

This would allow for patient referrals to evidence-based programs that keep older adults healthy and active through exercise, improved balance and nutritious eating. Looking ahead, NRPA also seeks to collaborate with health insurers for inclusion of evidence-based programs as health and wellness benefits, with reimbursement for local parks and rec program offerings.

Parks and recreation agencies are also in a position to help meet the needs of underserved older adults in their communities. Some ways to accomplish this include providing low-cost or free meals followed by social or physical activities to encourage increased participation; offering cheap or free transportation to senior and rec centers or other service providers; hosting health fairs, craft fairs and educational seminars focusing on older adults; offering travel through sponsored tours or field trips; and offering low-cost or free fitness programs. An NRPA survey also found that more than 90 percent of parks agencies partner with outside organizations to better serve the mature population. These entities include area agencies on aging, retirement communities, senior meals providers, local doctor's offices, hospitals and health departments and community-based groups such as YMCAs or faith-based organizations.

Back in Illinois, Grodsky said that they're inundated with various healthcare groups such as home healthcare organizations, etc., asking if they can present a free program or provide free bingo. She says that they sometimes allow them to be sponsors for lunches or entertainment. "It's a wonderful source of revenue for us, and it allows for different healthcare providers to get their name out."

Many parks departments host walking clubs, and Grodsky said theirs meets three times a week. To encourage more visits, they developed an eight-week Fitness Challenge: If a member participated in 20 out of 24 walks, they got a free T-shirt, provided by a sponsor. "People will do anything for a T-shirt," Grodsky said. "I'm going to do it again, and they're going to get a water bottle. Attendance just soared, and it was something really easy. When I first came here I got everybody pedometers and they recorded how far they walked in a six-week period and we gave little rewards for that. There's such simple stuff you can do to get people up and moving."


Another big annual event Grodsky is involved with is the IPRA Six County Senior Games, a sort of senior Olympics sponsored by the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association. It features more than 20 events including softball and volleyball, track and field, swimming, golf, trap shooting, bowling, billiards and table tennis. Last year more than 500 people aged 50-plus participated, with the oldest participant being 100. He shot pool and threw the softball, but gave up the 50-yard dash, which he still competed in at age 99. "People like to win and we give medals, but they're most concerned about their personal best. They like to be healthy and continue to grow, so that's why the Senior Games is a best look at positive aging," Grodsky said.

The Addison Park District offers an art class supported by a grant from a local foundation, so instructor and supplies are offered for six weeks for $12. "It's an amazing program, and we were lucky this grant came to us," Grodsky said. "It's filled every time—12 students."

Other offerings include a tap dance class and line dance class, and a drop-in program called Dance Mania where people can come every week and do the dances of their choice. Grodsky said these are very popular, but added that things that are popular there weren't necessarily popular at her last district, and vice versa. "You've got to know your population and your community and not be afraid to try things."

Grodsky also suggests agencies be willing to change their hours a bit, and do evening programs sometimes since many older adults are still working. In the summer they host a pig roast with a luau or country & western theme. They offer outings to sporting events or concerts, purchasing the tickets and providing bus transportation. They have speakers come in and present historical portrayals, and they host a book discussion group. They offer Brain Games, a monthly program featuring trivia, puzzles and brain teasers to help keep minds sharp. And every year they present a variety show with actors, dancers and a chorus. They hold two shows at a banquet hall, and last year they had 40 participants and drew 300 spectators.

Grodsky recounted how at her previous district, a newspaper wanted to come in and take pictures for a story on older adult programming. But she stopped them from taking pictures of people playing cards. "That's what people think older people do," she said. "Parks are good for the brain, but we don't want that stereotype. They play cards, but they also tap dance, take day trips, exercise and sing. We want to show that there's a lot of new stuff out there too."