June Golden's workout resume reads like a fitness history for our times.
Dance lessons from a series of instructors who subscribed to the "no pain, no gain" mantra were a rite of passage. Then came high-impact aerobics classes, where she jumped, shimmied, and rock-and-rolled. After a timeout for childbirth, it was on to step aerobics and kickboxing. And of course, there were a few months off here and there for knee injuries, torn ligaments, sprained ankles, and the like.
Then, as she approached her 60th birthday, Golden says, she finally found fitness nirvana -- with yoga and Pilates, a kinder, gentler workout that incorporates fluidity, grace, and focus. It's a routine that she says helps boost the health of both body and mind through breathing, stretching, and core strengthening.
"For years, I knew something was missing," says the New York communications consultant. "But as soon as I started this program, I knew instinctively that it is what I was searching for all these years."
Women like Golden are fueling the hottest exercise trend: a shift to routines that pose less stress to our bodies, says Harvey Lauer, who, as founder and president of American Sports Data Inc. (ASD), has tracked exercise trends for the past two decades.
The ASD's latest survey of 15,000 adults shows that at a time when gym membership in the 55-plus crowd has ballooned -- especially among women -- joint-jarring activities like aerobics and kickboxing are giving way to gentler pursuits such as:
- Pilates. Originally designed to give dancers muscle strength without bulk, Pilates was largely ignored by the general public for almost a century. Only two years ago, fewer than 10% of gyms offered classes in mat Pilates, a blend of stretching and calisthenics designed to enhance alignment, increase flexibility, and firm abdominal and back muscles. Now 40% do.
- Yoga. Americans first turned to the 5,000-year-old stretching and relaxation technique in the 1960s, looking for a way to get high without drugs. Now, the yoga/tai chi category boasts 11.1 million followers, almost double the 5.7 million in 1998.
- Elliptical trainers. More than 10 million Americans use elliptical trainers, a knee-friendly cross between a stair climber and a cross-country-ski machine. That's a surge of 177% over the 1998 level of 3.9 million -- and a sign that elliptical trainers have passed the litmus test of health club acceptance, Lauer says.
- Recumbent bikes. More than 10 million Americans now recline while they pedal, an increase of about 50% since 1998. Not only are these machines more comfy than ordinary exercise bikes, they take stress off achy lower backs, Lauer says.
Aging Boomers Drive Exercise Trend
The aging of the exercising population has driven the switch to low-impact activities, says Richard Cotton, a San Diego, Calif.-based exercise physiologist who is a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.
People 55 and older are the fastest-growing population in the nation's health clubs, up by 380% since 1987, according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). About 1 in 4 health club members is at least 55, up from only 9% in 1987.
As the country's 77 million baby boomers have begun aging, "there is a trend toward activities that are moderate in intensity and not so pounding on the body," Cotton says. "Comfort and lower injury risk are the two big draws."
Social acceptance plays a role too, Lauer says. "Forty years ago, it was unseemly for women to grow muscles. Now it's OK, even a source of sexual attraction. And the same is now true for older people."
While aging boomers are fueling the exercise trend toward kinder, gentler workouts, experts say that anyone who wants to stay fit -- particularly beginning exercisers -- should consider incorporating low-intensity activities into their routine.
Finding A Balance
"Because older adults are more prone to musculoskeletal injury, low-impact exercises are ideal for them," Cotton says. "But all men and women can benefit."
Studies show that low-intensity activities provide all the health benefits one needs, he says. "You don't have to train for the Olympics to optimize your health. Just modest activity lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and maintains muscle mass."
These same studies, he says, show that people are more likely to stick with a less grueling routine over the long haul.
Finding a Balance
A word of caution: By itself, any one of these low-impact exercises is not enough to stay fit, the experts warn.
The ideal routine combines the strength, flexibility, and balance training of yoga and Pilates with an aerobic activity such as brisk walking, Cooper says. "Or try recumbent cycling: You can push real hard and get your heart going," but there is less impact, and thus lower risk of injury, than with a treadmill or jogging.
So, how can you incorporate these gentler, kinder exercises into your routine?
If you don't already belong to a gym, start by calling health clubs in your area and requesting specific information about the equipment and classes they offer, advises Jamy McGee, fitness director at the Wellness Center at Meadowmont, part of the University of North Carolina Healthcare System in Chapel Hill.
If a club seems to meet your needs, pay a visit, she says: "Take a walk through the place, look around. Are there enough elliptical trainers and recumbent bicycles to meet the needs of members during peak times?
"The club should offer a free equipment orientation or a free session with a personal trainer so you can become familiar with the equipment," she says.
If you have the Pilates or yoga bug, ask about class size: Fewer than six students is best, she says. "You want some personal attention to ensure you don't get into any bad habits."
Watch a class and ask about the instructor's credentials, McGee says. Levels of education and skill among teachers vary widely. And definitely ask other gym members for their opinion.
Complete beginners may also want to try a video, McGee says.
If you already belong to a gym and want to sign up for yoga or Pilates classes, look for those that cater to beginners, she says: "There is a lot to learn. Whether it's a breathing technique or a particular stretch, you should give it time. If you start with an advanced class, you probably won't like it and you may even injure yourself."
Similarly, don't just jump on the elliptical trainer and start pedaling away, McGee says. "It's a little harder than a treadmill; more coordination is needed. So you may want to ask an instructor for help or start out by walking on a treadmill."
Mix It Up
Cooper suggests setting aside one or two days a week for yoga and/or Pilates, and the others for your low-intensity aerobic activity. A varied program will avoid muscle overuse, while alleviating boredom.
Whether you choose brisk walking or a ride on the recumbent bicycle for your cardiovascular workout, a minimum of 30 minutes, three to five days a week, is recommended.
The right mix offers endless benefits, says Golden. "Before I started my [low-impact program], I was in really bad shape. Now I have the movement I always wanted. People tell me I look younger and I definitely feel healthier than I have in years."