Feature Article - November 2009
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Fit(ness) Designs

Meeting a Growing Need

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Design solutions: For older adults, a welcoming environment may be one of the most important elements your facility can provide. "They want to feel comfortable, not like a bother," said Anne Pringle Burnell, fitness instructor and creator of Stronger Seniors exercise programs (www.strongerseniors.com). "They tend to go at the same time every day, then meet people and get to know them," she added. This crowd may migrate toward private clubs or community centers where they can get personal attention and interact with other seniors.

In some cases, this translates into a seniors-only facility, said Conti. "A lot of times [older adults] are not wanting to be around younger kids and babies," he noted. "They have been through that part of their life, and they're looking for those of like mind and like age. That's one reason 55-plus health clubs are doing well." If you're not in a position to exclude the sub-55 portion of the market, segmenting locker areas and bathrooms into family areas and adults-only areas may be helpful.

Essential equipment: Many seniors already have some exercise experience, and "if they've been working out all their lives, they can use [standard exercise equipment] like anyone else," Conti noted. However, those who are new to exercise or who are not as strong as they once were may merit some modifications. Sturdy chairs can be a helpful addition to exercise classes for added stability, and recumbent bikes may be another favorite, Haines said. As another means of making seniors feel welcome, Haines noted that the YMCA of Greater Kansas City keeps all its pools at temperatures within the Arthritis Foundation's recommended range (which younger swimmers may appreciate as well).

Burnell suggested providing resistance bands as an alternative to free weights, as they promote both strength and flexibility. And, "little dumbbells are good, but light, weighted balls—1 and 2 pounds—are better because they increase hand strength."

Programming potential: This is again an area where some seniors will feel perfectly at home in standard adult classes, while others may want something gentler. Adjusting can be as simple as demonstrating a modification in class, McCall said. "Give them options, but they don't have to be totally separate."

However, Burnell's business and experience centers on those at an age and ability level that does merit something a bit different. She suggests an element of resistance training to build strength and adds that many seniors "need to feel more confident in their gait and balance." Flexibility is a focus of Stronger Seniors, and "our program really talks about posture—using those core muscles. It's designed [to address] balance, strength, flexibility and breathing."

An element of fun is also helpful in engaging seniors, so she suggests dance-based activities, including Jazzercise and Nia. "Choose things that you can adjust the difficulty level," she suggested. "Advertise them as work-at-your-own-pace or own level."

Practically speaking, seniors will likely appreciate seeing instructors their own age at your facility. Also, "seniors may be bothered in group classes if they can't hear," Burnell said. So providing a good view of the instructor, turning down the tunes a little, and including lots of lead time into transitions from one activity or movement to another can help. She also recommends that once a class for seniors has developed a following, "don't change the time slot. Be consistent," she said. "Older adults become very religious about their schedule."