Feature Article - February 2008
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A Booming Market

Recreation and Fitness for Baby Boomers

By Stacy St. Clair

Decades ago, fitness programming was not unlike a sit-down meal at a wedding reception. There was a set menu that did not take into account the tastes, lifestyle or health restrictions of specific guests. In recent years, however, the industry has become a virtual buffet, with items intended for a variety of tastes and appetites. There are options now to tempt children, teens, seniors and women.

And now there's a new group to satisfy. As baby boomers hit retirement age, recreation managers must examine how they serve America's largest population group. They must look at whether their programs appeal to this group's physical, mental and financial interests.

"Baby boomers started the fitness craze," said Anne Rothschadl, a professor in Springfield College's (Mass.) department of sport management and recreation. "They're not going to go into aging the way other generations have. They will not stand for being treated like the others."

It can be tempting to go with a one-size-fits-all approach to recreation programming, but it wouldn't do much for your overall financial health. Baby boomers represent a crucial segment of the population—a segment that has the money and the desire to reach optimum fitness levels.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines baby boomers as the generation born between 1946 and 1964. In 2006, the oldest of the boomers turned 60. Among the Americans who have already celebrated that milestone are President George W. Bush, Cher, Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone.

Not exactly your grandmother's sexagenarians, are they?

That's exactly the point. As the boomers age, they'll be healthier, more active and trendier than previous generations. Most also understand the importance of fitness, meaning facility managers won't have to convince them that working out is important because this population already embraces those principles. Instead, they simply need to be given classes and programs that address their specific health concerns and personal interests.

It may sound like a daunting task, but it truly isn't. Facilities willing to tweak their programs and educate themselves on this generation's needs will have few problems catering to this large segment of the population.

Give them what they want

"The consumer has a choice today," said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. "If you don't address their needs, they're going to go elsewhere. Not addressing their needs is the equivalent of committing professional suicide."

Five years ago, the Groton Senior Center in Groton, Conn., recognized the opportunity and addressed it. The planning staff organized a roundtable during which they invited residents between ages 45 and 55 to participate in a group discussion. During the conversation, participants were asked about aging, what they see themselves doing as they age and how they are going to approach their 60s, 70s and 80s.

The participants' answers did not surprise Mary Jo Riley, the center's supervisor, who is a baby boomer herself. Respondents said they had visions of themselves in retirement or second careers, but they did not know the services or programs they would need to stay active as they hit their 80s.

"Much of the trend was to stay fit and healthy," Riley said. "There was also interest in travel and technology."

Having such a conversation was important in Groton, where the senior population has doubled in the past two decades. Nearly 20 percent of the community is older than 55, with many of them military retirees. The 28-year-old center, which is preparing to build a 15,000-square-foot addition, is accredited by the National Institute of Senior Centers because of its approach to meeting the demands of today's aging population.

The center also has designed fitness programs to appeal to as many people as possible. There are low-level Arthritis Foundation classes all the way up to intermediate-level aerobics. They also offer day trips—mostly visits to good restaurants for dinner and evening entertainment—that require plenty of walking and physical activity.

Boomers also tend to be more time-conscious than their older counterparts. They have places to go and people to see, so their fitness routines must be quick and convenient. To cater to their on-the-go lifestyle, the Groton Senior Center began offering designer coffee and a continental breakfast so folks can take the time for a quick bite and a chat with friends after class.

In almost every facet of programming, the facility focuses on the boomers' time constraints. They offer one-on-one classes so they can fit the boomers' schedules. They also open the fitness center at 7:30 a.m. and schedule evening programs three to four times a week so patrons can find the hours that work best for them,