At the 2002 World Fitness IDEA® convention, held this past summer in San Diego, the hot topic among attendees was teaching older adults. As all of this year’s IDEA award recipients emphasized in their acceptance remarks, not only is it cool and fun to teach the older-adult population, but it’s prudent as well. With the baby boomer wave cresting, teaching older adults really is an investment in your own future!
So how do you make the transition from teaching standard classes that are geared toward any age to designing and leading classes that target older adults? Can you simply use the skills you already have? According to the experts consulted for this article, the answer is “yes and no.”
To arrive at your own conclusions, use the following lists to determine what you need to add to your repertoire of skills in order to teach this burgeoning market.
All of our experts stressed one basic program design principle: Know your participants. In many of the standard fitness programs offered in clubs today, the class descriptions are so specific that participants know what to expect before they enter the room. But in many cases, classes geared toward older adults have nebulous, all-encompassing names like “Senior Fitness.” While this kind of class title aptly states who the class is for, what is being offered is less than clear. (For a look at how to describe your seniors’ classes correctly and creatively, see “Choosing the Right Class Name” on page 9.)
The reality is that the older-adult population encompasses a wide range of ages and physical ability levels, from active to frail. Additionally, there is great diversity in fitness goals, motivation, experience and expectations in this population. Once you get to know the basic makeup of your potential participants, you can tailor your program to their needs and levels. Alternatively, you can design a class that highlights your existing skills and then market that exclusively to older adults. Of course, as your program grows and evolves, you can start adding to your older-adult class offerings and provide specific workouts within that track.
Most of your older participants will probably attend your classes because they want to feel better and enhance their quality of life. “With older adults, it’s all about functional fitness, not fashionable fitness,” says Peggy Buchanan, MA, director of the fitness and aquatics center at Vista del Monte retirement community in Santa Barbara, California, and the 2002 IDEA Program Director of the Year.
As you’re teaching movement to older adults, try to relate your cuing to daily tasks. For example, instead of saying, “Reach and stretch,” say, “Reach as though you’re trying to get something off the top shelf.” Ken Alan, a Los Angeles-based instructor who has been teaching older adults since 1985, calls this “movement with meaning.”
How you communicate with your older participants helps determine whether they continue with your class, but their reasons for initially attending can differ significantly from those of other age groups. Alan says the factors motivating seniors fall into one of four categories: “(1) Prevention: They want to prevent something from happening, such as cardiac disease or physical deterioration. (2) Control: They want to gain con- trol of their lives, bodies and health. (3) Reversal: They want to reverse something that’s already happened, such as weight gain or a decrease in range of motion. (4) Participation: They want to participate in life in a meaningful way.”
Buchanan says members of the older generation attend fitness classes to focus on the whole person. She cites six aspects of fitness motivation for seniors: emotional, spiritual, vocational, intellectual, social and physical (which is the basis for the first five). Knowing that you are teaching to a “whole person” and not just an “exerciser” will free you to use these six aspects of your own personality within the context of your class.
Keep in mind that this generation didn’t grow up viewing fitness as a goal and may still cling to the perception that exercise is uncomfortable and grueling. It is incumbent upon you to make exercise a learning experience that is fun but still geared toward your participants’ goals.
Volume and selection are the biggest issues when selecting and playing music for older-adult classes. “Music is very, very important,” says Terry Ferebee Eckmann, MS, co-owner of Fitness First in Minot, North Dakota, and former chair of IDEA’s exercise and aging committee. “Watch the volume. My older adults don’t appreciate the blaring sound that my younger participants enjoy.”
If the music and you are competing for attention, turn the sound down or off. Turning up your microphone will not improve the situation, especially for people with hearing aids.
As in any age group, music preferences differ, but music from this generation’s past tends to be popular. Big band, swing, Broadway, classical, jazz, social dance (e.g., mambo and lindy) and even Motown are usually good bets. Depending on your class makeup, country, pop, disco, rock, Latin and Top 40 may also be well received.
Liability is of concern to all clubs, but the policies with respect to collecting health histories may differ widely between clubs. Some may collect detailed information, others may require none. “In an ideal world, instructors would have a health history for each participant,” says Linda Freeman of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who created the S.A.F.E. (Seniors and FUNctional Exercise) Ball Program. “But this is the real world.” Here are a few basic, yet essential, things you should consider before accepting new senior participants.
Each of our experts does something extra to make their older-adult classes special, and you may want to start thinking about how to add your own special touch. Ellen Coven, MA, of Jericho, New York, former chairperson of IDEA’s exercise and aging committee, takes a class photo of each of her older adults and attaches it to an emergency contact card. Eckmann shares thoughts and jokes during her classes. Buchanan celebrates each participant’s birthday by making a tape of his or her favorite music. Freeman uses a memory game in which each person has to add a word in alphabetical order while participants pass a ball back and forth. For her Boston-based participants, Josie Gardiner—the 2002 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year—creates name tags that list pertinent medical information on the back. And Alan takes the time to hug his older participants, knowing that that might be their only human contact that day.
Whether you’re actively pursuing becoming a teacher for the older-adult market or just contemplating it as a future option, you should know that our experts were unanimous in their assessment: The rewards of teaching this special population far outnumber any extra effort involved. This is a group of people who are grateful, consistent, loyal and supportive and who truly want to learn.
As Gardiner puts it, “This is the most wonderful and satisfying work in the fitness profession. Have a passion for what you do and the people you work with, and you will be successful.”