Guest Column - January 2008
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Great Expectations

The Making of an Age-Friendly Wellness Center

By Colin Milner

e have learned a lot about promoting active aging in these past 10 years. One thing we have discovered is that we spend too much money on trying to educate the older population about being fit and healthy. Among age-50-plus adults surveyed by AARP, 98 percent of respondents knew that getting enough exercise was important, and 64 percent agreed that physical activity was the best thing they could do for their health. This level of awareness means that marketers do not have to establish need with this market, but rather show how they provide a solution that will help potential clients overcome the barriers to entry.

The starting point

How do you begin to address barriers to older adult participation in your wellness center? First, identify the potential obstacles, then eliminate as many as possible in the conceptual planning stage.

Focus group research will give you a good start by educating you about some reasons individuals avoid facilities. Aim to sit down with a group of adults in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s to discuss their views about aging and activity. By finding out what are true issues for your potential clients and not just negative perceptions, you can set out to offer them the kind of great experiences that lead to great expectations.

To better understand the barriers faced by older adults, add to your knowledge by learning more about the many issues and obstacles that have an impact, and how your competitors address them to attract the aging market. Set out to determine the age-friendliness of each competitor's amenities and programming, and how well they support physical activity for specific older adult populations. The results might surprise you.

Older adults have different levels of physical function and have specific exercise needs based on that level. One of the most vital things to decide when creating an age-friendly wellness center is which functional level(s) to serve. This choice will influence every facet of your operation, including the elements you build into your center.

Equipped for active agers

Typically, fitness and wellness facilities place as much equipment as possible in their workout areas. Younger members benefit from having more machines to use and shorter waits during busy periods. But mature clients may find it difficult to move around in crowded spaces. This obstacle to participation often disappears when a facility reconfigures its workout area.

What impression do you get in your competitors' venues? Have they addressed this issue adequately by allowing more space in their equipment areas, making the facility easier for older adults to use? Or do their configurations show a desire simply to maximize the use of space?

One way you can remove equipment-related barriers is to think of how older adults can use equipment differently. For instance, older members or residents may be able to use certain equipment with assistance or with modifications, such as wider seats or benches to aid those with balance or weight issues. Staff members could also suggest alternatives when necessary, such as tubing, bands or free weights. Specific features can make exercise equipment more accessible to older adults.

Here are a few examples:

TREADMILLS: a low starting speed (i.e., 0.5 mph); a display panel that's easy to read, change and understand; and a long handrail(s).

RECUMBENT BIKES/STEPPERS: a wide, comfortable seat, with an armrest(s); a display panel that's easy to read and understand; a keypad within easy reach; and a step-through design.

STRENGTH TRAINING EQUIPMENT: an easy entry and exit by individuals with different functional abilities and disabilities; an ability to change resistance from a seated position; a low starting resistance (i.e., less than 5 lbs.); and, ideally, an ability to increase resistance in one-pound or other small increments.