Guest Column - January 2006
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Selecting Fitness Equipment for Special Populations

Fitness and Exercise

By Tim McCarthy

Look around any fitness facility. Exercisers with special needs are everywhere. A 48-year-old mother is lifting weights following knee surgery. An overweight teen is on a recumbent bike, aiming to lose 60 pounds. A 63-year-old executive who's recovering from a heart attack last year is on a power-walking regimen.

Young adults and seniors are two of the fastest growing demographic segments of the U.S. health club population, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and American Sports Data's 2004 Health Club Trend Report. Those under age 18 accounted for 11.1 percent of the market, and those over 55 represented 24.7 percent of health club members. From 1987 to 2004, health club memberships for seniors increased a gigantic 562.8 percent, according to IHRSA.

Recreation, sports and fitness facilities should have appropriate exercise equipment to serve the needs of these diverse, rapidly growing groups. Does your fitness equipment measure up for exercisers in these special populations?

This article will focus on equipment needs for four groups: older adults (age 55 and up), pregnant women, people with disabilities, and children and teenagers. The good news is that exercise equipment manufacturers are offering an array of exciting products tailored to these special populations.

Older adults

Baby boomers are hitting fitness facilities to stay in shape, develop strength, improve balance to prevent falls, and ward off illnesses such as heart disease and osteoporosis. IHRSA reports that in 2004 there were 10.2 million health club members age 55 and up.

Fitness equipment feature and design considerations for the senior market include:

  • Large-text instructions and controls, easy-to-use consoles, and simple layouts that take exercisers step-by-step through their workouts
  • Low-impact elliptical motion to minimize jarring to the ankle, knees, hips and back
  • Roomy pedals that allow users to comfortably position their feet
  • Comfortable, large seats on upright exercise bikes
  • Back support seats and built-in contours on recumbent exercise bikes
  • Heart-rate monitoring on cardio equipment
  • Seat positions and weight settings that are easy to change and can be adjusted from a sitting position
  • Low starting weights with small incremental increases
  • Appropriate seat-pad height to make it easy for exercisers to get on and off equipment
  • Covered weight stacks for safety
  • Good ergonomic design so users don't overstress joints
Pregnant women

Pregnant women today don't have to give up their exercise programs, although they may need to modify their routines. Women who lead active lifestyles prior to pregnancy are likely to be committed exercisers during pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that pregnant women without any medical complications exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes a day. Women always should check first with their doctors before embarking on an exercise program. This is especially important if they haven't been active before their pregnancy.

Physical activity can help pregnant women prevent excess weight gain, avoid gestational diabetes, prepare for labor and delivery, avoid back pain, improve posture, and feel better overall. Dancing, bicycling, walking and swimming are good exercises to maintain cardiovascular fitness, and moderate weight training can be safe.

Types of fitness equipment ideal for this special population include:

  • Stationary bicycles
  • Cardio equipment with heart-rate monitoring
  • Strength-training machines that allow the user to sit, including the lateral raise, seated leg curl and shoulder press
People with disabilities

Recreation, sports and fitness facilities can help make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities by offering programs, services and equipment to meet their special needs.

What are the advantages of exercising for this special population? Exercise can improve muscle strength and stamina, reduce symptoms of depression, lessen the risks of dying from heart disease, and help prevent high blood pressure and diabetes, according to the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health.

Facility managers should consider these equipment features for this market:

  • Tactile buttons or buttons with audio tones (for hearing and visually impaired)
  • Large graphics and text on displays (for visually impaired)
  • Color-contrasted pieces on the equipment, such as pins for weight stack and bike-seat adjustment (for visually impaired)
  • Low start-up resistance
  • Descriptive symbols on displays and weight stacks (for visually impaired)
  • Ability to accommodate wheelchair users
  • Low starting weights with small incremental increases
  • Unbalanced resistance loading, so muscle imbalances can be corrected
Children and teenagers

The childhood obesity epidemic is not going away. Since 1980, the percentage of overweight young adults has more than tripled, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That means more than 9 million people between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight.

Children and teens who are overweight are at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and joint problems.

One way to motivate kids to exercise and get them moving is to incorporate entertainment, music and visuals. If they don't think of it as exercise, they may be more willing to work out.

Some innovative equipment for the youth market includes:

  • Dance competition games that can be used with a TV, PC or video-game system and allow users to follow dance or workout routines on mats
  • Mini-trampolines that provide total-body workouts
  • Virtual-reality games that put kids into an interactive world where they have to jump, dodge, duck or block while watching on-screen activities
  • Interactive exercise bikes that allow users to play speed-related video games

Serving the needs of special populations requires having the right equipment for the right audience. Think outside the box when making decisions about new equipment tons with their unique exercise needs.


Tim McCarthy is vice president of national accounts at Life Fitness. For more information, visit