Fit for All Ages

Reaching New Demographics Through Targeted Fitness Programming

By Chris Gelbach

According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, fewer than two of 10 Americans get the recommended levels of exercise, and more than a quarter of Americans don't exercise at all.

For the managers of fitness clubs, park districts and other facilities, these statistics represent both a formidable challenge and a growing opportunity. Across the nation, as facility managers modify their fitness programming to get more people working out, an integral component of this effort is the creation of more programming aimed at specific demographics.

In fact, a recent survey of more than 2,600 fitness professionals conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) predicted that fitness programming for older adults and programs for children aimed at tackling childhood obesity would be among the top fitness trends for 2012.

This kind of targeted demographic programming can help facilities reach untapped markets while also helping to maximize facility use during downtimes in existing program schedules. At the same time, by better addressing the needs and interests of these different groups, these programs can also contribute to the larger goal of creating healthier communities.

Fitness for Kids

Over the past several years, kids' fitness has become a growing priority for facility programmers. One reason is the alarming rise in childhood obesity, which has more than tripled over the past 30 years. Today, more than one-third of American children are overweight or obese. As a result, parents are looking for opportunities for their children to be active in an environment where budget cuts have reduced or cut physical education in many schools. And the fitness industry, which has had little success getting inactive adults to change their ways, sees new opportunity in this younger generation.

"There's been a lot of talk in the fitness industry in the last several years about the industry as a whole missing the boat and not getting those 80 percenters to begin exercising," said Neal I. Pire, president of InsPIRE Training Systems and a fellow of the ACSM. Pire notes that the industry is trying to change that, and has been focused on kids' fitness as a way to do so. "If you can't broaden your current market, create a new market," he said.

In creating new kids' programs, facilities are targeting children of all ages with their programming—even infants and toddlers. Both the Chicago Park District and Portland Parks & Recreation, for instance, include parent and infant yoga in their program offerings. And Portland has found that including programming for younger children is a great way to maximize the use of their facilities.

"It often rains here in the winter, so we have different preschool baby gym and open gym times so parents can bring their toddlers and youngsters in to socialize and get some activity," said Sue Glenn, manager of the North Zone for Portland Parks & Recreation.

In the city's University Park community center, the baby gym takes place in the wrestling mat room that would be otherwise unused during the morning hours. And the morning indoor park class offered to ages 1 through 5 takes place in the gymnasium, where little cars and trikes are set up along with tunnels to crawl through and obstacles for the kids to jump over. "It's an active play space, but indoor and dry and protected and clean. And then we turn the space over and use it for other things later in the day. We also engage with home-schoolers, as well, during that downtime to help them have an active component to their education."

Many trainers and programmers find that younger children are often more receptive to general fitness programming than older kids. Such has been the experience of Mike Z. Robinson, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and the owner of MZR Fitness, a personal training studio in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Robinson regularly partners with San Luis Obispo's Parks & Recreation department to offer children's boot camps.

"If you get kids between the ages of 5 and 10," said Robinson, "you can catch them and give them a foundation that will last them for the rest of their lives. At that age, kids love exercising. To them it's just having fun. That's the key—to make it fun. If you just walk them around and have them count out push-ups, they'll get bored. If you give them something new, like Bosu balls and ropes to slam around and jumping jacks to do, they're more into it." Robinson typically runs these boot camps twice a week for a half-hour. "If you do it much longer than that, you lose their attention really easily."

Recognizing that activity alone is not enough to combat childhood obesity, more programs are also including a nutrition component. Working with the local park district, Robinson offers a month-long after-school fitness and learning program twice a week for an hour and a half for kids ages 6 to 10. The first 20 to 30 minutes are spent working out, followed by some nutrition education, with the kids spending the remainder of their time doing homework.

The Chicago Park District includes a nutrition education component in some of its family fitness classes, and also offers Fun With Food, a 10-week after-school program that meets once a week for an hour and teaches kids about nutrition and food preparation, including ways to make healthier snacks.

Targeting Teens

One of the most prominent trends for reaching the teen demographic, according to Pire, is performance-based athletic training aimed at children who are already on sports teams. Pire has been doing this type of agility and speed training for athletic kids since he was with the Parisi Speed School in 1998. "Their home base is in New Jersey and now they're franchised all over," Pire said. "Certainly in my marketplace they were the only ones doing athletic training for high school kids at the time, and now everybody is doing it. It's aimed at kids who are already athletes and are looking to become better ones."

Pire notes that in addition to the spread of athletic conditioning franchises, off-the-shelf how-to programs for professional trainers such as Combine360 are also playing a role in furthering the trend's popularity. "Trainers have wanted to do new stuff, as opposed to personal training, for the longest time," he said. "This is one of the ways that they've been doing it."

These programs typically include children as young as 8, with the median age being closer to 12, according to Pire. The sessions typically run 45 to 90 minutes, depending on whether a strength-training component is included with the agility training, and kids typically attend twice a week. "They're typically done in small groups, instead of one-on-one," Pire said. "That brings down the barrier for entry for the user, while allowing the trainer and facility an opportunity to earn more money."

Fitness experts such as Pire find that getting sedentary teens to work out is a considerably more formidable challenge. "I've found it frustrating in finding the answer to getting these kids at least minimally active so they get some benefit from it—and they're the ones that need it most," he said.

In an attempt to reach these children by making fitness seem fun instead of a chore, facilities are starting to embrace something that teens know and love—technology. "When we first started programs aimed at these kids, we wanted to reduce their screen time," Glenn said. "But then we realized that they still want to play computer games, which are very popular with kids in our computer lab."

As a result, Portland Parks & Recreation has chosen to include active Wii games for these kids among the gaming options in their game lounges. And the Chicago Park District has rolled out 12 gaming fit zones across the city focused on interactive gaming, including dance pads and bikes that work with screens and PlayStations.

Pire, whose business includes fitness consulting for outside facilities, worked on the opening of a club in New York's Rockland County that included an athletic training center, a large fitness center for adults, and a separate youth fitness zone with treadmills, selectorized equipment and video-oriented exercises such as Dance Dance Revolution and bikes that enable children to race the kid next to them on video. The advantage of such a layout is that it provides a safe environment for kids to get exercise through hour-long training sessions while their parents work out in the main gym.

"It was a great freestyle program because there was an educational component that taught kids about strength and cardio training," he said. "They went from high-touch, low-tech selectorized equipment to the treadmills to using Dance Dance Revolution to keep them engaged for the session. And when parent was done the kid would be there in the supervised waiting area, which had a bunch of computers so they could do their homework. It was very well done and very popular."

Pire noted that the youth fitness zone could be used by kids up to age 15, but that most were probably 10 to 12. "Once they hit 12 or 13, a lot of the kids are doing sports, so they want to transfer to the athletic training area," he said. "When they reach that age, you rarely see kids who are just physically active for fitness' sake."

Instead, facilities often have more success reaching teens through sports programs, or by offering field trips and other activities that can be a social as well as an active experience. "When we work with our teen club, we try to offer activities that are fun for them," said Raquel Maldonado, wellness program specialist for the Chicago Park District. "They go on ski trips and things like that so they're doing activities, but aren't particularly focusing on fitness—they're just participating with their friends in something. Portland Parks & Recreation takes a similar approach through its Outdoor Recreation program, which gives youths the opportunity to do activities such as hiking (and even summiting Mt. Hood) as well as cross-country skiing and snow tubing.

Both park districts have also found success in enticing teens to be more active through programs that include job training. The Chicago Park District, for instance, partners with the nonprofit organization After School Matters and other city agencies on Sports37 to engage Chicago's teens in activities that develop important life skills and a healthy approach to living while training them as lifeguards, coaches, officials and recreation leaders.

Portland Parks & Recreation's Youth Conservation Crew, meanwhile, provides active summer employment opportunities for a diverse population of Portland-area youth ages 14 to 18. The participants protect, restore and manage Portland's parks and natural areas while developing essential job skills by saving and planting trees, improving trails, mulching and watering plants, and teaching other kids and adults about ecology and conservation. Among its other offerings, the district also runs a two-day DJ academy that teaches kids age 12 to 15 professional DJ skills that they can use to get other teens moving at high school dances.

Family Fitness

Another approach more programmers are taking to get more people working out is to make fitness a family affair. "Our schedules and our lives are moving so fast," Maldonaldo said. "Giving parents an opportunity to participate in activities with their children is something that people should consider, because everyone's time is so limited."

The Chicago Park District offers a variety of programs to get families working out together, including Mighty Fit Family, which includes circuit-training activities that all family members can do. "A toddler is going to do a push-up a little differently than an adult, but you're still able to teach them the basic elements of holding their bodyweight up with their hands," Maldonado said. "We have a strength corner, a cardio corner, a stability corner and a flexibility corner that each family rotates through. We follow that with a team-building game that helps the family work together and at the same time get their exercise." The class also includes regular games like tag and concludes with some nutrition or sharing on a fun snack for kids and some partner stretching.

The Senior Boom

Perhaps no group is becoming a bigger focus for health and fitness professionals than the baby boom generation—for a couple of good reasons. First, this group tends to have more discretionary income than younger demographics. Second, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it's also the least active group of Americans, so it represents a huge untapped market.

"As the boomers and older adults need exercise more, they're the ones filling up gyms these days," Robinson said. "At the same time, they didn't grow up working out. A lot of them have spent most of their lives not working out and now are trying to in their 50s, 60s or beyond."

Because of this fact, Robinson noted that these exercisers are at increased risk of injury if they jump head-first into group fitness classes where they might not get enough individual attention. Instead, he prefers reaching the demographic through one-on-one personal training sessions. "I'd rather offer personal training services to them at a discount—at least for three to five sessions to give them a foundation—before putting them into a group setting."

In terms of group programming, the Chicago Park District has found success reaching this demographic with programs that include line dancing, chair yoga and swimming. Maldonado noted that the social component of these programs is critical in attracting and retaining older park district patrons. "I've been at parks where the senior participants have been coming for eight or 10 years and it's their social outlet. They go for their walking club one day, their yoga the next, their line dancing the next day. Some of them are also involved in our advisory councils and have a strong stake in the parks they go to regularly."

Fitness trends that are popular with other demographics are likewise catching on with boomers—with some modifications. For instance, Portland Parks & Recreation has had success with its Zumba Gold class, a seniors-oriented version of the popular Latin-dance-inspired workout. Pire has likewise attracted an older demographic with a new take on the boot camp format.

"It's funny because I never marketed it as a baby boomer thing," Pire said. "I marketed it to people who'd had orthopedic and cardiovascular issues, and it just worked out that the average and median ages in my boot camps are in their mid-50s."

These boot camps avoid ballistic movements like burpees and box jumps, take place indoors, and eliminate the barked orders and cadences of a traditional boot camp. And the non-intimidating way Pire markets it attracts people who would otherwise be scared away from a boot camp setting.

"It's an overall, total-body workout I'm able to tailor to the group regardless of where they're at," Pire said. "But it's warm and friendly versus scary." To cater to different fitness levels, Pire includes activities that can be done in three different ways appropriate to each participant's fitness level. That way, the exercisers can continue to get a better workout as they get fitter, and the beginners are still able to get a sense of accomplishment from completing the workout.

Facilities are also attracting older patrons through creative senior membership options. One club Pire did consulting work for offered a senior membership that charged $30 for the year, as opposed to $400 or $500, but required the seniors to also pay $2 each time they worked out. The membership was also restricted to morning hours when the club was relatively quiet. "It didn't hurt the club in terms of crowding, it was a nominal investment for the senior, and at the same time they were increasing their senior membership instead of selling a program like SilverSneakers they'd have to resell six or 12 weeks later," he said.

Catering to Communities

Perhaps the most important consideration in achieving success in reaching different demographics is to always focus on the needs of the local community, which can be facilitated by regularly reaching out to community groups for input. "We really try to reach out into our neighborhoods where our community centers are and do a lot of intentional programming," Glenn said. This outreach can help facilities learn about and eliminate cultural barriers to participation. "For our Somali population, we've created female-only swims so that it was culturally OK for them to put on a bathing suit and go into the pool," Glenn noted as one example in Portland.

When creating programs for new demographics, it's sometimes difficult to determine which programs will work because of cultural and demographic differences in different areas. For this reason, Robinson recommends always doing a test run of any new program to see if it gains traction with the target demographic. "You can't serve everybody," he said. "It's better to pick a certain demographic for which a program works and just focus in on it."

At the same time, sometimes programming targeted primarily at a certain demographic will end up reaching a wider audience. Portland Parks & Recreation's culturally diverse offerings such as Spanish dance, Capoeira and African dance, for instance, have become popular with a wide range of demographics. "We really do see the value in creating opportunities for cultures to come together in a community center," Glenn said. "It's the neighborhood living room, where cultures and people of different means and backgrounds blend." As a result, creating specific programming for targeted demographics can have the unexpected effect of bringing people of different ages, cultures and abilities together—while helping each group get fit in the process.

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