Fitness After 50: The Gym Goes Gray

Baby boomers are flocking to fitness centers in record numbers

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

They may not be hanging Beatles posters on the walls, or piping in thesoundtrack from Yellow Submarine. Still, more and more fitness centersare doing everything they can to attract the baby boom generation -- and it'sworking, with folks over 50 making up the fastest-growing segment of thefitness population.

"For about the past 15 years, the baby boom fitness market has been slowlygrowing," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging."But in the last several years it has really exploded, and it's exploded inmany segments, including health club memberships." According to theInternational Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, older adults arehitting gyms and health clubs at a record rate. The group says the number ofhealth club members over 55 grew by 343% from 1987 to 2003, while the number ofmembers in the 35-54 age group increased by 180%.

Milner says that by 2012, "those numbers will increase even moredramatically. This is a market that is only going to grow more and more as timegoes on."

What's driving the change? Trend-watchers say the generation that oncebelieved "never trust anyone over 30" is now well over 50 but still determinednot to grow old.

"I think we could roll up the whole reasoning into just one phrase --quality of life -- because the feedback we get is that people simply want to beactive in their later years, and they now realize that being fit is one of theonly ways to do that," says Dean Witherspoon, president of Health EnhancementSystems, which creates health programs for corporations and otherorganizations.

Milner agrees: "A lot of the problems we used to think of as being relatedto aging, we now know aren't related to aging at all. They are related todisuse of the body, and boomers have finally begun to realize 'Hey, we can dosomething about that.'"

Indeed, studies continue to show that we can. For example, research recentlypublished in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found thatinactivity doubles the risk of mobility limitations as we age, while vigorousactivity has the opposite effect. In another study, published in the journalNeurology, doctors found that exercise can slow cognitive declines -- meaningour minds can stay sharper longer.

"No matter what area you look to, be it heart disease, obesity, diabetes,high blood pressure, osteoporosis, research shows that being physically fitinto your senior years will keep you healthier and active longer," says CedricBryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council onExercise.

And baby boomers are not about to let that opportunity slip by, expertssay.

"Unlike our grandparents, who simply hoped they could hang around longenough to collect Social Security, our generation has every expectation that at60 we're going to be doing the same things we did at 45 -- and it's a very goodpossibility that we will," says Witherspoon.

Redefining Fitness, Boomer-Style

While the idea of midlife fitness may have been sneaking into our collectiveconsciousness for some time, experts say the real difference came when healthclubs themselves began to change.

Leading the pack: a Harlington, Texas, company with a chain of health clubsknown as Curves. It started in 1995 as one location offering a circuit-trainingprogram aimed at women over 45, and in just 36 months it grew to 1,000locations. Today there are some 9,000 Curves gyms worldwide.

But what was different about this club? Some believe it simply made fitnesseasier for the overworked, overstressed Boomer to achieve.

"It put the health club into the neighborhood, and created a fast,time-saving, 30-minute workout a woman could easily fit into her day," saysMilner.

It also did something else. Experts say it created a more attainable modelfor success.

"Essentially, it did away with the 'perfect body' dream, and replaced itwith the much more realistic 'better lifestyle and better health' dream -- andit worked," says Milner.

It also helped spawn an entire industry. In addition to the 8,000 Curveslocations around the United States, similar organizations such as Slim and Tonefor women and now Cuts -- a kind of Curves for men -- are taking off.

What's more, even gyms and health clubs that have traditionally courted thehard-body set are looking to catch some backsplash from the Baby Boomer fitnesswave. Bally Total Fitness is launching an ad campaign aimed at Boomers,according to news reports, while the Southern California chain of Gold's Gymsplans to begin featuring 50-somethings in its ads.

50-and-Up Fitness: What You Must Know

While the spirit may be willing, experts say, by the time you're 50 orolder, your body needs a little extra attention if you are to benefit in boththe short and the long run.

Some experts worry that not every gym or health club is up to thechallenge.

"The shift towards getting fit after 50 is definitely taking place, butunfortunately, the staff and instructors at many gyms and fitness clubs are notreally set up for this paradigm change," says Robert Catalini, an exercisephysiologist and director of the Holy Redeemer Health and Fitness Center atHoly Redeemer Medical Center in Meadowbrook, Pa.

This is particularly important for those who have not exercised in the pastor who have become sedentary in recent years, he says.

"The longer it has been since you set foot inside a gym, the more you aregoing to have to rely on your instructors to guide you to the right kinds ofactivities, so it's important that they really know what they are doing, " saysBryant.

Moreover, Catalini says, if you're already saddled with health issues --like achy joints, bad knees, or back pain -- as well as risk factors for heartdisease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity, you need tobe doubly sure you're getting the right advice.

"There's no question you can do it, and should do it, but there are certainthings you have to pay attention to, and certain guidelines you have to follow,and they can't be the same ones you followed in your 20s or 30s or even 40s,"says Catalini.

7 Ways to Ensure Success

To help put you on the path to a fit and healthy future, Bryant and Catalinioffer the following guidelines to help ensure your midlife workout plan is asuccess.

1. Ask questions, particularly if you have health concerns: Can youaccommodate my bad back, do you have instructors with a background in cardioexercise, is your pool heated and to what temperature? Anything that affectsyour condition should be addressed well before you sign on the dotted line.Also make certain that the instructors have experience coaching regular folks(not athletes) over 50.

2. Make sure your trainer, club manager, or fitness instructor takes amedical history as well as a family history before planning your workoutprogram. This should include a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire orPAR-Q test to determine your physical age, which may not be the same asyour chronological one. Workouts should be based on your physical age.

3. Tell your fitness instructors about any health conditions (for example,asthma or heart disease) or risk factors (if you smoke, if you get easilywinded, if your have joint problems), and let them know about all medicationsyou're taking. Some can cause fatigue, muscles aches, or other issues thatcould be confused with workout issues.

4. Be clear about your fitness goals and convey them to your instructor orhealth club manager. Do you want to lose weight, get more energy, relieve pain,strengthen joints? Tell them -- and make sure gym has the ability to help youmeet that goal.

5. Don't try to compete with younger members, or with the memory of yourformer self. Experts say the worst thing you can do is to focus on your yearsas a high school quarterback and try to match what you could do decadesearlier. Set new, age-adjusted goals and compete with yourself only in the hereand now.

6. Get a check-up before joining any gym or starting an exercise program, nomatter how great you feel. Inform your doctor of your fitness plans and discussany concerns or limitations together. Check in with your doctor anytime youexperience significant discomfort while working out, including shortness ofbreath, chest pains, headaches, dizziness, or muscle aches that don't subsideafter a day or two of rest.

7. Listen to your body, not your trainer. While it's OK to push hard andlong you're young, consistency is a better goal after 50. If your body issaying take it slower, then take it slower. Period.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 2005. Neurology, 2004 vol 63: pp 2202-2003. International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub web site. Colin Milner, chief executive officer, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Canada. Dean Witherspoon, president, Health Enhancement Systems. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise, Seattle. Robert Catalini, exercise physiologist and director, Holy Redeemer Health and Fitness Center, Holy Redeemer Medical Center, Meadowbrook, Pa.

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