Consider these two statistics:
1. The Silent Generation—those born before the end of World War II, who’re now in their 70s and 80s—command a third of all wealth in the U.S. The Baby Boomers, the oldest of whom are now in their early 70s, control 50 percent.
2. The average 70-year-old is likely to live another 15 years.
Put those data points together, and you see why this demographic is so important to your future. They have time. They have money (with very little debt). And they know it takes effort to preserve their health and vitality. I speak from experience when I say they’re motivated and in need of quality trainers.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from training older adults in group and individual settings for more than 15 years, it’s that training them is very different from working with young or even middle-aged adults. If you don’t understand or address their unique needs, insecurities, and struggles, you risk losing them as clients or, worse, injuring them.
In this article, I’ll explain over how to attract this affluent, underserved, and often misunderstood generation, including these major points:
- What works and doesn’t work to attract and retain these clients
- Why being the “fitness expert” isn’t enough
- What scares them the most
By the end, you’ll know how to provide seniors with a great service and how to bring more of them in.
Get to Know Your Older Clients
First Impressions Are Everything
Put yourself in the shoes of a 75-year-old woman whose doctor has just recommended that she seek out a personal trainer with the goal of improving her strength and cardiovascular fitness. She’s never had a health-club membership, and hasn’t done any formal exercise in decades. Look at your business through her eyes. What will she see when she gets to your front door?
Start with a fundamental question: Can she get through the door at all? Are there flights of stairs she has to climb, or obstacles that she’ll struggle to navigate with a cane or walker?
Once she’s in your facility, what will be her first impression? How will she react to the posters and signs on your walls? Is the staff dressed appropriately? Will they greet her with a friendly smile?
Then there’s the gym population.
Just as a 25-year-old bodybuilder would feel silly working out in a room full of 70-year-olds, so do older adults prefer training with people their own age.
While there are always exceptions, most clients tell me that being around younger, more aggressive trainees makes them feel they need to push themselves too far.
Another consideration: how you name your group classes. While “Killer Abs” might work for your youngest members, you’ll have a better chance of attracting seniors if you call it “Core and More.” A name that says “intensity” to a woman in her 20s says “injury” to someone old enough to be her grandmother. Remember that their goal is to stay healthy, not risk their health. In addition, many are dealing with physical limitations, if not constant pain. The last thing they want is a group class that increases their pain symptoms.
Common courtesy also matters a lot to this generation, says Dan Ritchie, Ph.D., co-founder and president of the Functional Aging Institute. Make eye contact. Actively engage in conversation. Most important of all: Stay off the phone!
Don’t Assume You Know What They Need or Want
Like all your clients, seniors want you to be qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable. They don’t expect you to understand all their challenges, but you should be open to learning what they are, and how much they can differ from one client to the next.
“One 70-year-old may be considering a nursing or retirement home, whereas another is still a competitive triathlete or adventure thrill-seeker,” Ritchie says.
Put another way, “some 70-year-olds are old,” while others still see their best years in front of them.
As you can imagine, these seniors will come to you with a wide range of goals—just like any other age group. You can’t make sweeping assumptions about what any individual client needs or wants. Your only option is to listen—really listen—to what they tell you.
One thing you’ll hear, early and often, is what they don’t want. These clients know their limits.
Use that to your advantage by putting them in the driver’s seat. Let them tell you what is and isn’t working for them. Go over your training plans with them in detail before you start, and don’t spring surprises on them, as you might with a younger client. It won’t go well.
When going over your workout prescription, be sure to describe the progression you have in mind. If they push back, it’s up to you to dial back your expectations to meet their concerns.
Don’t expect them to change their concerns to meet your expectations.
They must know you’re listening to them. If they suspect you aren’t, they’ll take their business elsewhere.
Here’s an example: When I explain to a client how I plan to increase the intensity of her program, I pay close attention to her reaction. If she laughs nervously, I ask why. Chances are she’ll express a fear of getting hurt. At that point, rather than insisting that I know what’s best for her, we’ll talk about how we can modify an exercise to make her more comfortable with it, or how we’ll be build up her skills before we make her program more challenging.
Communication is crucial at all stages of the program. When you think they’re ready for a new exercise or more intensity, give them plenty of notice, including frequent reminders of how you’ve prepared for this particular challenge. Pay close attention to any concerns they have. The aging process chips away at a person’s confidence with every unwelcome change to body and mind. Your programming has to build them up instead of beating them down. Each training session should leave them feeling successful and pleased with their progress.
Their success, in turn, will ensure your success. Not only will they be loyal clients, they’ll recommend you to their friends, and some of those friends will also be loyal to you.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean: I’ve been training a lady in her late 70s who has arthritis in her knees and neck, and is awaiting a knee replacement. I was hired to increase her core and upper-body strength. She had never lifted weights before, which is intimidating for anyone her age. But her biggest fear was getting hurt or falling.
For our first month of training, she stayed in a chair. Then we moved to a mat. Eventually, I was able to put her on a stability ball for seated poses. Now she performs her exercises while prone on the ball. Because of her arthritis, some days are harder than others, and we adjust the intensity accordingly.
We make progress because, at every stage, I acknowledge her concerns and help her feel comfortable. I keep her ability and fears in the top of my mind even as I try to increase those abilities and minimize those fears. If I’d put her on a stability ball on day one, I’m certain she would’ve cancelled our future appointments. Now, as she gains confidence, I add new equipment, but only if she feels comfortable with it.
The hardest lesson here for a trainer is that you often have to forego your own expectations when training this clientele.
Don’t Write Them Off as “Old”
On the other hand, you’ll find older clients who don’t want to be treated like fine china. That’s why Maureen Hagan, vice president of operations at Goodlife Fitness Centers, says that seniors don’t like “being stereotyped as old, frail, or out into the category of senior.”
As Ritchie notes, “Clients in their 70s and up are probably looking for a trainer who’s caring and compassionate and understanding that their bodies won’t allow them to train as hard as when they were 30 or 40. But they don’t want to be treated as if they’re sick and nearly dead, either. They want a safe, effective workout that serves their goals. They want more energy, more strength, more balance and agility, and more functional ability.”
Furthermore, few gyms offer effective programming. “Most trainers and facilities are not training this population hard enough,” he says.
This doesn’t negate anything I just said about paying attention to their fears and concerns. It just means that, once you’ve done a proper assessment of your client’s health, abilities, and training history, you need to build programming to challenge that client effectively. A workout that’s too easy, or based on a template of what you think a client his age should be able to do, can be just as bad for your client’s motivation as a program that’s too aggressive.
Three Ways to Annoy and Frustrate Seniors
An Overcrowded Gym
To be sure, nobody likes to work out in a jam-packed health club. Nobody likes to wait for equipment, or fight for a spot in front of the mirror, or worry about someone walking into your field of vision in the middle of a lift. But imagine what a crowded weight room does to a senior. Imagine the anxiety for someone who isn’t comfortable or confident to begin with. Imagine the fear of being jostled and knocked over, or of walking into someone else whose movements she can’t anticipate.
Also keep in mind that a lot of your senior trainees will use hearing aids. If the room is too crowded, it affects their ability to distinguish sounds, increases their anxiety, and heightens the risk of an avoidable injury or accident.
Loud, Inappropriate Music
Loud music can inhibit a senior’s ability to hear instructions, which may prompt the trainer to raise his voice. That wouldn’t be an issue for a younger client, but to someone in her 70s, it sounds like someone half her age is yelling at her. In general, if you have to raise your voice to be heard, that’s not an appropriate training environment for older adults.
If you play music while your clients are exercising, consider the style of music that will motivate them. I guarantee you that most will not enjoy rap. Do your homework and pick popular hits from their era. Better yet, ask for their preferences, and play their favorite songs or bands the next time you train with them. When you do, be prepared for some of them to sing along.
Avoid Complicated Instructions
Coaching and cueing are art forms. You don’t need to say much if you’re doing them right. A few considerations:
- Don’t be too verbose in your directions.
- Keep your language simple and clear. I’ve found that modeling the movement is far more effective than long-winded descriptions.
Colin Milner, founder and CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, says you have to remember that a client who’s physically fit “could be cognitively compromised.” Because it can take that client longer to process information, you should give just one detail to focus on at a time.
Here’s what I mean: If you’re training a younger client, you first model the exercise. Then, when he attempts it, you might correct his form while simultaneously explaining the benefits, or why you’ve selected this option over others for the same movement pattern or muscle groups. With a senior, he’ll be so focused on performing the movement that he won’t be able to process your explanation.
The solution is to slow down the training experience. If you have important information about form or safety, share it when they aren’t moving. Let them focus on the exercise while they’re doing it.
Specialize in Addressing Their Concerns
Now that you’re aware of senior clients’ needs, fears, and frustrations, you can figure out how to tailor your services to accommodate them.
Milner suggests choosing which class of seniors you want to train by looking at five levels of functionality:
- Athletic: exercises or is physically active every day.
- Fit: participates in physical activity at least three days per week.
- Independent: active at least two days per week.
- Frail: active less than two days per week.
- Dependent: doesn’t do any physical activity.
Your choice will determine how you advertise to prospective clients, as well as the environment in which you train them. For example, clients in the first two categories will be looking to maintain or improve their fitness level and possibly their sport performance. Clients in the Independent category want to be strong and flexible enough to keep living alone. Frail and Dependent clients probably need help on more basic issues, like getting up and down from a chair or reaching for something on a shelf.
Environment matters a lot. If you’re working out of a large gym that caters to a younger crowd, you’re going to attract very few seniors unless the gym is attached to a community center or mall that seniors frequent. Depending on the class of seniors you target, you may need to offer classes in residences, or rent your own space that you can set up with the goal of addressing their unique concerns.
For example, if you want to attract athletic seniors, advertise where they play their sport—typically golf or tennis. Since I’m in Canada, many of my clients curl, and they always want to know how to improve their game. You can entice them with small, sport-specific group training classes at your facility, such as a Strengthen Your Core and Improve Your Golf Score class for senior golfers. Keep in mind that senior athletes who’re retired and affluent have a lot of time to devote to their sport, and they’re interested in anything that they think will improve their performance or allow them to do it with less pain or discomfort.
Another surprisingly successful strategy is to pick a piece of equipment—bands, sliding discs, tubing, weights—and build a program around it. The key is to find a need that the equipment addresses for seniors. It can be strength, flexibility, coordination, or even memory. Your goal is to offer a unique approach to training that helps senior stay functionally fit for the rest of their lives.
For example, I’ve been very successful at remarketing balance pods, which are similar to the Bosu ball, but much smaller and cheaper. The ones I use are about eight inches in diameter, with bumps on the rounded side. I have 40, and easily transport them in my car for group classes. My clients like my pod classes because they’re a fun way to improve balance and core strength, both of which become life-and-death concerns when a single fall can take away their independence.
Try this: Ask local clubs if you can offer one-day group training to help their clients achieve a specific goal, like addressing common fitness concerns related to improving sport performance. Your program could then lead to future business for both you and the club.
Another option is to give presentations to local organizations as a guest speaker. Our local Weight Watchers chapter, for example, offers monthly seminars by professionals in a variety of areas. I once demonstrated a chair-stretching program, which not only gave the participants strategies they could use at home, it gave me valuable exposure in the community.
Sometimes the best approach to training seniors is to focus on fun, rather than fitness, as the primary benefit.
Let’s say you start with the idea that a lot of older adults love to dance, but many in this group are widowed, divorced, or otherwise without a partner who shares their love for the dance floor. In 2011, I taught line dancing in a group setting. It became so popular that I now have a waiting list to get into my classes. As a fitness professional, I know that dancing checks a lot of boxes, allowing seniors to socialize while improving their balance, coordination, and memory.
Even in more traditional exercise classes, many of my clients and students tell me they come to the gym to be with their friends. They often meet for coffee afterwards. If you can help them form a community, and perhaps even carve out a small space in your facility for them to hang out together before and after their workouts, you’re going to attract more seniors to your business.
Two Things that Scare Senior Clients
This is the number-one fear, says Maureen Hagan of Goodlife Fitness Centers, because it means losing their independence and “subsequently having to rely on caregivers or assisted living.” You can acknowledge this fear by choosing exercises that improve balance and core strength while working from a stable position.
For core stability, you could start your client on all fours with a bird dog, raising her opposite arm and leg. As she progresses, you might introduce a balance pod, placing it under a knee or hand. From there, you can advance to standing one-leg exercises, perhaps with a chair nearby for support.
Also keep in mind the small hazards an older client will encounter in any gym. Are there mats or pieces of equipment in areas where he might stumble into them? If a client is visually impaired, he could walk right into the edge of a barbell or weight rack.
Another consideration is the difficulty an older client might have getting on and off a machine. One time a client grabbed onto a machine for support when he was climbing onto another. It almost fell on top of him. Luckily, I caught it in time, but it goes to show how important it is to let the client set the pace of the training session, including the transition from one station to the next. If you try to rush him, you never know what can happen.
Additionally, some seniors may suffer from vertigo, a condition that can bring sudden feelings of dizziness. If you know this in advance, you can avoid using exercises that require getting up and down off of the floor multiple times. Even if a client doesn’t have an official diagnosis of vertigo, you can bring on dizziness by having her move quickly from sit-ups to squats or leg presses and then back down to push-ups on the floor. For someone predisposed to vertigo, sitting on a stability ball can trigger a dizzy spell. Another trigger is having their head below their heart. So even if a client can perform an exercise like a push-up with his feet on a stability ball, it’s out of the question if he has vertigo.
You can learn all this from your clients if you simply ask. They may even volunteer the information.
“The biggest mistake trainers make is not listening,” Milner says.
He describes an unfortunate experience close to home: When his 75-year-old mother went to a gym to meet a trainer, she told him about her vertigo and suggested she begin the workout on a stationary bike. The trainer ignored her and started her on a treadmill instead. She promptly fell, and never returned to that gym.
Loss of Stamina
Hagan says that “younger” seniors—those in their late 60s and early 70s—have an understandable fear of losing their youthful vitality. While that can include anything from strength to athletic skill, in my experience, nothing scares seniors as much as losing their stamina. It’s scary to realize you can’t do as much as you could just a few short years ago.
Your mission as a trainer is to show them what they can do, giving them some “I’ve still got it” moments. If a female client can no longer do bootcamp classes, perhaps you can steer her toward Pilates, or teach her some yoga postures she can master.
Another consideration, notes Ona McDonald, PRO-Trainer for the Canadian Fitness Professionals, is that an hour-long training session may be too much for some clients. That’s why I now offer programs that can be completed in 30 minutes or less. I want my clients to leave a session feeling energized, not exhausted. Go to the CanFitPro website to find workshops offered by Ona that will teach you all about caring for this wonderful population.
Armed with these suggestions, you now have the tools you need to attract this growing demographic into your business. Working with the 70-plus crowd continues to be the most rewarding part of my professional career.
- Dan Ritchie and Cody Sipe offer certifications at the Functional Aging Institute.
- Colin Milner’s organization, the International Council on Active Aging, offers educational materials targeted to older adults.
- Canfitpro offers an active aging certificate.
- Maureen Hagan offers this 47-minute video on functional fitness for older adults, focusing on back health.