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.
"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,
"I think the most important piece of advice is, 'Try it.' Whatever program you think may attract participation, try it," Riley suggested. "If it doesn't work, modify it and try it again. We have found that offering a program we think boomers would like takes about three times to get it right. If it doesn't happen after three times, we drop it and move on."
Recreation programs often rely on word-of-mouth to do most of their advertising, Riley said. If managers drop a class because it only attracted a small turnout the first time, they haven't given it enough of a chance.
And it is important to get the word out. Most boomers and seniors don't realize programs are available until they hear about them.
"Getting them in the door for one event makes them realize that it is not a nursing-home atmosphere, but an active recreation center that also offers services," Riley said. "Trips, the fitness room and computer classes are the big draw for boomers and men. Offering classes at times they will take them is the other draw—especially if you offer evening programs."
To market programs effectively, it's important to pay attention to small details such as naming a program. Boomers, for example, don't consider themselves old or feeble, so it's a big mistake to use words that remind them of their age.
"Something like 'golden oldies' really misses the boat in the marketplace," Milner said.
Boomers are more active than previous generations and care deeply about having enough time and energy to handle everything on their plates. The founders of "Curves," for example, recognized these concerns when they created a circuit workout that women could complete in 30 minutes.
"Try using terms like 'energy booster' in your fitness classes," Milner suggested. "That's going to attract boomers."
While paying attention to what boomers want is critical, it's also important to remember what they need. Balance and weight programs are critical components of any wellness program. Complications from falling due to weak muscles and uncertain balance kill thousands of older adults every year. One in three people over 55 falls each year. Roughly half of those people will fall again.
"It's very important that this generation have access to balance programs," Milner said. "Fear of falling leads to more than just physical problems. It also reduces socialization and leads to isolation."
Weight programs also are critical for boomers as they age. Studies show that 29 percent of people over 65 can't lift 10 pounds. In addition, 50 percent of menopausal women over 50 have the initial stages of osteopenia (a bone mineral density that is lower than normal peaks), and they don't even know it.
Recreation facility managers would be wise to offer weight-bearing exercise programs specifically catered to boomers. The first step is to establish a need, Milner said. Work with a screening organization to provide bone mineral density screenings and consultations. Until these potential members have been screened, they are likely unaware of the issues they may face and the steps needed to address them.
"By taking these initial steps toward addressing bone health, your facility will become a key long-term partner for your members and potential members," Milner said.
Workout rooms and exercise studios aren't the only places where boomers are underserved. Aquatic centers and waterparks also could be doing more to pique their interest.
The aquatic industry should be responding to the boomer generation much as it catered to young people's tastes more than a decade ago. With the younger generation entertained, it's now time to consider the aging population because, try as you might, water cannons and drop slides aren't likely to attract anyone who witnessed the moon landing.
Experts recommend including amenities and services that the boomers introduced to American culture. That means offering self-indulgent features like private cabanas, poolside wait staff and spa options. In addition to staying healthy, this generation understands the importance of pampering themselves. And they're willing to spend the money to do so.
"Each generation is different," industry expert Judith Leblein-Josephs said. "I look back at my dad. He had two pairs of shoes: his work shoes and his funeral shoes. Look in the closet of a male empty-nester. He has shoes for everything: boating shoes, hiking shoes, golf shoes, tennis shoes, running shoes, etc."
It's also a good idea to include programming specifically geared toward adults. Water yoga and lap swims will help get people in the door. Many aquatic centers have found success with poolside dinners, adult-only swim times and couples' nights.
No one in the recreation and entertainment industry has done a better job of attracting boomers than Disney World, Leblein-Josephs said. Nearly a decade ago, the company recognized that boomers had time, money and energy—but nowhere to spend it. They marketed their facility as a place to have fun without kids, thanks to night clubs, restaurants and first-class resorts.
"They got it, and they've been capitalizing on it ever since," Leblein-Josephs said. "When you see things like that, you have to capitalize on it."
However recreation facility managers decide to address boomers' needs, they should take great pains to educate patrons about the programs. Explain how water yoga helps relieve stress, for example, or why weight training is important to maintain bone density.
"Education has to be infused in much of the programming," Rothschadl said. "This generation is the most highly educated generation. They tend to be lifelong learners."
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