Feature Article - July 2018
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All Grown Up

Innovative Programs for Active Older Adults

By Dave Ramont


"When you consider there are 75 million baby boomers still living and another 30 million-plus traditionalist generation (those born before 1946), you're looking at a huge market that has a handful of fitness services," Ritchie said, adding that he's slowly seeing more franchises popping up that cater to mature adults. "We're seeing more activities pick up like pickleball and other leisure activities, but overall this market is massively underserved."

He added, "We are noticing that retirement communities are much more focused on recreation and physical activity centers, adding full fitness centers, pools and more—much more than the old activity room and shuffleboard of the past."

But for fitness facilities to attract the mature population, he said they need to offer programs specific to their needs, their wants and their fitness and functional levels. "Of course, it starts with marketing to them in the first place, but if your program is really geared for 30-year-olds it won't matter as they won't be able to really enjoy it as it isn't the right fit."

Specifically to cater to older adults and those with medical conditions, Ritchie and his partner Cody Sipe opened a Miracles Fitness franchise in Lafayette, Ind. "Our average age is 60, and we only market to 55-plus, but we do have all ages," Ritchie said. "We opened it in 2007 as baby boomers were beginning to turn 60 by 10,000 a day, and we noticed no one was marketing to, catering to or serving this demographic, so we decided to stop talking about it and start doing it."

He added that small group personal training for older adults seems to be a growing trend. "One-on-one is still popular, but the cost is prohibitive for many in the long term."

Of course, there are many differences when working with a 70-year-old versus a 30-year-old if you're a trainer or exercise instructor. And while there are certification programs available that focus on older adult training, Ritchie and Sipe felt that most of them were inadequate. So in 2013 they founded the Functional Aging Institute (FAI), to share their innovative and science-based training programs with other trainers around the world. FAI offers two key certifications aimed at helping fitness professionals be more effective when working with the senior population: Functional Aging Specialist and Functional Aging Group Exercise Specialist. Other certification and continuing education opportunities include Tai Chi Basic Certification, Functional Core and Balance Program, Physiology of Aging, Understanding the Mature Adult and many more. These programs can help in designing safe and effective functional exercise programs for low, moderate and high-functioning clients, boosting the fitness professional's confidence when working with this growing population. "We train trainers to learn functional levels and functional aging training models so they can train people at an appropriate level to yield life-changing results for years to come," Ritchie said.

Many parks and recreation agencies are reinventing themselves to meet the wants and needs of their aging constituents by offering more educational and arts programs, adult day programs and fitness classes, and social and volunteer opportunities. In fact, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is engaging in a Healthy Aging in Parks initiative, a campaign to improve and maintain the health and well-being of older adults by creating opportunities for physical activities through parks and recreation.

Lesha Spencer-Brown, a program manager at NRPA who's involved with this initiative, said they're focused on making sure that all of their programs are evidence-based, so they know the outcomes will be beneficial for older adults with very different chronic diseases, so that they can improve their overall health. But she added that it's not only about providing physical benefits—they also want to increase community and social engagement among older adults and help them to become vital contributors to their communities as well. "We want to equip parks and rec agencies with the skills and tools to be able to serve this rapidly growing population because we know that their needs and desires vary," Spencer-Brown said.

As part of their initiative, NRPA is also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Arthritis Foundation. Spencer-Brown said that these organizations can help expand the availability of the programs in parks and rec because they have access to the community and they're great settings for people to engage in a wide variety of programs and services. "We typically offer instructor and training grants to agencies so they're able to train their staff to lead one or more of the programs that we are disseminating through the CDC, and we are also working on developing relationships between parks and rec and the healthcare community."

This would allow for patient referrals to evidence-based programs that keep older adults healthy and active through exercise, improved balance and nutritious eating. Looking ahead, NRPA also seeks to collaborate with health insurers for inclusion of evidence-based programs as health and wellness benefits, with reimbursement for local parks and rec program offerings.

Parks and recreation agencies are also in a position to help meet the needs of underserved older adults in their communities. Some ways to accomplish this include providing low-cost or free meals followed by social or physical activities to encourage increased participation; offering cheap or free transportation to senior and rec centers or other service providers; hosting health fairs, craft fairs and educational seminars focusing on older adults; offering travel through sponsored tours or field trips; and offering low-cost or free fitness programs. An NRPA survey also found that more than 90 percent of parks agencies partner with outside organizations to better serve the mature population. These entities include area agencies on aging, retirement communities, senior meals providers, local doctor's offices, hospitals and health departments and community-based groups such as YMCAs or faith-based organizations.