Feature Article - May/June 2002
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Beyond BINGO

Marketing and programming for seniors nowadays is more rock climbing than rocking chairs

By Margaret Ahrweiler

You think you're keeping pace at the neighborhood running track until a lean man with the leg muscles of your dreams passes you several times, his fine white hair bobbing.

You and your mate pause, winded and sweaty, near the peak of a mountain hike in the California desert. Two grandmotherly types with walking sticks give a cheery hello as they breeze past, nary a drop of perspiration on them.


Embarking on a 12-mile drive to a state park along Florida's windswept Atlantic coast, you pass two bicyclists with shorts exposing varicose veins, only to see them pull in the park shortly after you.*

"Who are these people?" you ask. They are the senior recreation market, and if your facility hasn't recognized these scenarios reflect their interests, it's time to learn. They are active, they are affluent, they are diverse and they don't like shuffleboard.

A few facts to take into account: According to U.S. Census statistics, seniors 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population—34 million—and will be 63 million strong by 2025 as the Baby Boomers age. They will be healthier and more affluent than any elderly generation before them. Seniors aged 55 and older now make up 23 percent of the nation's health-club members, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, up from only 9 percent in 1987. Memberships for those 55 and up segment have increased 114 percent in the last three years, while in the same period, the number of members aged 18 to 35 decreased by 14 percent, as that group's demographics shrunk.

In response to these demographic trends, the AARP, the granddaddy of senior organizations, has made fitness and physical activity a priority, in both research and in programming. To get a better handle what they could do to promote fitness, AARP researchers broke seniors into four groups: Do-Nothings, Planners, Tryers and Habitual Exercisers (see sidebar).

"We know that the senior population is becoming more and more active, and we'll see even more of that as the Baby Boomers age, but we also know that 34 percent of the population age 55 and older is sedentary and want them to be more active," explains Margaret Hawkins, AARP campaign manager, health. "We're going for the people who are interested but not quite getting it. With help, they can turn into Habitual Exercisers."

Sun City Grand in Phoenix was built with active
seniors in mind, as was the community's Granite
Falls golf course.

Hawkins emphasizes that the AARP wants to educate seniors about how to stay physically active (she says many seniors prefer that term over exercise, which its connotations of spandex and drudgery).

"They understand the benefits; we don't need to keep beating that into them," she says. "What they want to know is how much to do and how to get started—a translation of the guidelines."

The method the AARP chose to spread the word speaks volumes about modern seniors and recreation. Instead of, say, national Tai Chi programs, the AARP last year kicked off the Tri-Umph Classic, an annual series of triathlons. It consists of a 400-meter swim, a 20K bike ride and a 5K run and is sanctioned by USA Triathlon.

As a pilot program, the Tri-Umph took place in six cities across the country and focused on training as much as the actual event to snare the Planners and Tryers, who are interested in fitness but having a hard time getting on track. Participants could compete as part of a relay team or do all three events themselves. Everyone who registered received a training manual with a 12-week program and could also sign up for an 8-week coach-led program at no extra cost. Both were designed for all fitness levels. Last year's Tri-Umph races drew almost 1,500 people, with about 200 participants per location, according to Hawkins. She expects participation to grow significantly over the next few years, and this year's series will take place in 15 cities.

Along with promoting the Tri-Umph, the AARP is expanding its research about seniors' attitudes toward recreation and fitness.

"We're learning how to talk to them about the issue, and what they want," Hawkins says. "We want to know how to make it fun, which is so important to them, and what kinds of programs and activities the Planners and Tryers would participate in. Do they need incentives? Do they like to do things individually or in groups?"

A few preliminary findings Hawkins passed along: "We can't underestimate their abilities. They don't want to be preached to and don't want to be condescended to."

Marketing recreation and fitness programs to seniors differs from the younger population as well, Hawkins notes.

"They don't want to see models, and they don't want to see spandex," she says. "They want to see ordinary people who look like they're enjoying themselves. We found they'd rather see people in groups, with men and women together, rather than single-sex. They also want a strong message showing other people juggling everything in their lives and still finding time for physical activity."