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The Fitness Zone

How Fitness Professionals Can Cater to the Older Generation
May 15, 2014

Older generations present a large potential market to fitness professionals, with baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) alone representing around 25% of the Australian population. Yet this demographic is one that fitness professionals rarely market towards.

If fitness professionals can cater towards this age group's specific physical, mental and social needs, they will broaden their training audience and help the older generation to have a better quality of life as they age.

So what is it that the older generation wants from physical activity? What are their concerns? And how can fitness professionals help them achieve their goals?

Physical illness and injury

A common misconception exists that exercise for the older population should be gentle or slow. Kay MacKenzie, a fitness professional who is over 50 herself, begs to differ. In her experience, older people often need to change their conception of what they are capable of, but once they do, they love exercise and flourish with physical challenges.

Certainly older people may be more prone to injury, especially if they have not engaged in exercise for some time. They may be suffering from low muscle mass and bone density, or conditions such as diabetes, arthritis or weight problems. Yet fitness professionals should be able to tailor an exercise program that will extend an older client's abilities while avoiding aggravating their illnesses or injuries.

Sessions that focus on strength, flexibility and balance, with less emphasis on cardio, are ideal for older clients. However, MacKenzie is quick to point out that you may not need to lower the level of your session much. You can still achieve good cardio results while keeping the exercise low impact through using the stationary bike, cross trainer or pool.

In a group setting, you can cater to the specific needs of older participants by offering different levels of the same exercise. For example, weighted jump squats might be great for athletic young people, but the option of non-weighted, stationary squats may be better for older people prone to arthritis.

Mental barriers

While physical barriers like injury and illness can deter the older population from physical activity, many barriers are in fact mental. Research has shown that some of the main reasons older people avoid exercise is a fear of falling, feeling physically unfit, worrying that they are unable to do exercise, and simply not wanting to exercise.

To combat this, it is important for fitness professionals to provide a welcoming atmosphere and make potential clients aware that you cater for all levels of fitness. Let your qualifications be known so that older clients see you as a fitness and health authority that will be able to cater to their needs, understand their concessions and never push them beyond their limits to the point of injury.

If you intend to market towards the older generations then you may benefit from further training that equip you with the ability to help clients with chronic conditions. The Australian Institute of Fitness' Exercise Therapist course qualifies trainers to work with Allied Health Professionals like General Practitioners, Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists, and can put you above the rest when older clients are looking for a reliable trainer to cater to their needs.

Health and body image

A 2007 study from the University of Michigan looked at the reasons why women 40-60 years old were interested in exercise. It found that their main goals were related to health, weight loss and a sense of wellbeing, while aspects like stress release, fun' and competitive purposes' were some of the least important reasons for them to be physically active.

Studies such as this should point trainers towards developing programs that promote overall health and weight loss for middle aged women, while downplaying emphasis on competition. Gym franchises like Fernwood and Curves have successfully targeted this demographic by combining gym memberships with nutritional training, meal plans, health coaching, weight-loss focused classes and personal training.

Social connections

Physical activity can offer more than health and fitness for older demographics. It can provide much needed social connections through group fitness sessions, meeting new people and catching up with friends for a workout.

Research by the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) showed that some of the main rewards older people perceived from participating in physical activity were meeting people, getting out and maintaining friendships. Our study found that opportunities to socialise, keep mentally active and avoid social isolation were considered important, with the exercise considered incidental' said Kirsten Moore, Research Fellow at NARI.

Those in the fitness industry should take note of these findings and offer a social aspect to their services, such as group training and over-50s only sessions. Personal Trainers could encourage clients to bring their friends and family to work out with them by offering free buddy-training vouchers.

As for gym owners and managers, incorporating an aspect of socialisation could be as simple as including a cafe space or sit-down spot with magazines that clients can enjoy after a gym session. Gyms could also organise outside social activities like a lawn bowls day or work with local community groups to offer free or discounted sessions to older people.

It's clear that the fitness industry has a lot to gain from tailoring its products and services to older generations. Apart from reaching a new market, fitness professionals can gain an enormous sense of satisfaction by helping the older demographics to live longer, healthier lives.

This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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