Fitness & Exercise

Effective Fitness Programs for Aging Boomers

By Judy Greer


aby boomers, now reaching the age of retirement, are eager to find ways to stave off aging as they try to be active grandparents and maintain their independence. Clubs that offer effective exercise for this age group can greatly impact the health and wellness of these members and also attract new members. One of the most important characteristics of effective exercise for this age group is that it should promote and maintain functional fitness—the combination of strength, balance and conditioning that preserves one's ability to live independently.

But often exercisers of this age are set in their routines and hesitant to try something new. Carol Penfield, a nurse practitioner and former triathlete who now owns Chatham Health and Swim Club in Chatham, Mass., decided to test an exercise program for active aging adults to see if a new sport—rowing—could both motivate members and improve their health.

At Chatham, roughly 80 percent of members are over age 60. Penfield noticed that not many people were using the club's indoor rower. From her own experience and training, she felt that rowing would be a great choice of exercise for her members, but she needed to figure out what the barriers were, and how to help her members overcome those barriers. So she decided to create a rowing class for over-60 exercisers and study its effectiveness. Even Penfield was surprised by the enthusiastic turnout, the perfect attendance of the participants and the strength of the results.

Penfield tested 34 participants in standardized senior fitness tests before and after a six-week series of 30-minute group rowing classes. All 34 older adults who participated in the study showed 20 percent to 34 percent improvements on a series of strength and flexibility tests that measure functional movements such as stair climbing, walking and mobility. Fitness gains such as these can make a considerable difference in an older person's quality of life. Penfield noted that "the ability to sit, stand, walk and maintain agility determines a person's ability to live independently and avoid common injuries from falls."

Unlike other exercises, rowing is unique in that it is performed in a seated position—allowing strengthening of the legs and core without weight-bearing strain to the joints. Rowing uses all the major muscle groups, and provides aerobic and anaerobic conditioning with a smooth, rhythmic, impact-free motion.

Each group rowing class included a warm-up and cool-down period, a 5-minute rowing technique segment and two 3-minute periods of rowing with alternating periods of stretching and strengthening. A 4-minute row for distance was compared week-to-week. Sixty-eight percent of participants had no prior rowing experience, and many did not consider themselves exercisers when the study began.

Penfield uncovered many of the participants' misconceptions about rowing—mainly, that rowing could hurt their knees or back. Study participants were surprised and excited to learn that rowing could improve their physical endurance and leg strength without causing or aggravating knee or back pain. "My knees don't allow me to do some activities anymore," said Jay T., "but rowing didn't seem to bother them at all." Sue C. agreed, "I used to have problems with my back, but rowing has made it stronger without pain." All participants reported that they could row comfortably.

A second phase of the study focused on whether participants could row without causing or aggravating neck and shoulder pain or stiffness. In this group, 25 percent of participants had existing transient shoulder pain or stiffness that completely resolved, and 19 percent of participants had existing transient neck pain or stiffness that completely resolved. Alan M. noted, "my neck stiffness has decreased since rowing, I can now look over my shoulder while driving."

Penfield concluded that interval indoor rowing classes were a safe and effective way to improve strength and flexibility for her members over the age of 60. A structured program of rowing with specific therapeutic exercises allowed Penfield's members to participate in a group—regardless of medical limitations and at various fitness levels. She implemented group rowing classes because it filled members' needs and, just as importantly, allowed her to maximize the use of existing equipment.

When designing new programming, consider classes that target specific populations. Baby boomers are often an easy group to consider based on their sheer numbers, but they are also a good group to focus on because they have identifiable and unique needs. As baby boomers age and transition into retirement, they want exercises that help them fight the realities of aging. Creative programming engages these individuals and gives them reasons to be loyal and participatory members.

Show members the value of their memberships by designing programs with measurable results and fitness gains. Marketing these benefits can help attract more participants for future classes. Compare different programs by quantifying results, and determine what programs offer the most benefits. Then consider the costs: A study can measure the value of different equipment purchases. Effective programs may not require any new equipment when creative programs target specific populations.


Judy Geer graduated from Dartmouth College, which is where she began her competitive rowing career. She went on to compete as a member of the U.S. National Rowing Team for nine years, including the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics. She also coached women's rowing at Dartmouth College, and continues to coach sculling at the Craftsbury Sculling Center. Judy joined Concept2 in 1983 and is now a member of the marketing team, where she enjoys the challenge of keeping customers motivated and enthusiastic about rowing. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.