Toned, Strong and a Little Gray, Too
“Chiseled body, bronzed, young, very serious — and male,” said Ms. Guest, who is now 65 and lives in San Diego. Instead, she was matched up with Sharon Hill, a vivacious blonde only four years younger than Ms. Guest.
“I was so pleased,” Ms. Guest said. “Because now I didn’t feel like I was going to have to live up to some 30-year-old’s idea of a workout. This was someone who would understand what it’s like when you’re older.” As more seniors head into the gym, whether out of health concerns or just vanity, they are often being greeted by someone who looks very similar.
Except maybe a little more toned.
Studies by IDEA, a nationwide organization of fitness professionals, have shown a steady increase in the number of older adults who are choosing to work in the business of working out. IDEA also said that the number of 55-and-older trainers and instructors attending its annual World Fitness Convention in Los Angeles grew to 12 percent last year, from 5 percent in 2004. The trend is mirrored in attendance at other IDEA events, including the organization’s annual Personal Trainer Institute in Alexandria, Va., where last year, 42 percent of the attendees were 45 to 64.
“Without a doubt, we’re seeing older people entering the fitness industry,” said Kathie Davis, the executive director of IDEA. “As the baby boomers continue to age, they’re not ready to retire. They want to stay active and engaged, and see this as a way to do it.”
“There can be some distinct advantages to working with an older person,” said Hank Williford, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University, Montgomery. “Probably some younger individuals are interested in training for a livelihood, as opposed to a passion, whereas the older trainer has more than just a monetary interest.”
“I never thought of doing it as a living,” said Jules Winkler, 79, a retired diamond setter from Medford, N.Y., who became certified as a trainer five years ago. Mr. Winkler, a lifelong weight lifter and accomplished marathon runner, said, “I just wanted to help other seniors see what exercise could do for their quality of life. Then I started making a little money at it, and that was a bonus.”
The path that led Ms. Hill to a retirement career as a personal trainer at Fitness Quest 10 gym in San Diego was slightly different. Now 61, she had a 32-year career in sales, working for companies like I.B.M., the Digital Equipment Corporation and Xerox. When she hit 50, she says, “I was burned out.”
The sedentary yet stressful lifestyle of corporate sales management, for which she was logging 100,000 airline miles a year, was taking its toll. “I needed to make a change,” she said. “I was eating bad airline food. I was sleep-deprived and not exercising.”
Determined to get herself into better shape, in October 2001, she impulsively walked into a newly opened gym near her home in the Scripps Ranch section of San Diego.
Ms. Hill began one-on-one training with Todd Durkin, the gym’s owner, and joined a walking and jogging group that met on weekends. Soon, she was doing things she had never dreamed possible: winning her age group in a local 5K race, doing three unassisted pull-ups, dropping to a size 4 from a size 8. “I became the star pupil,” Ms. Hill jokes. “Todd was introducing me to new clients. It was a ‘If she can do it in her 50s, you can do it!’ kind of thing.”
At the same time, Ms. Hill was considering retirement from the grind of sales. But she wanted to keep working, at least part time and preferably in something she cared about. “I finally asked Todd, ‘Would you ever consider hiring someone like me as a trainer?’ ”
“I thought it was a pretty cool idea,” Mr. Durkin recalled. “With her corporate background, I thought she might have the ability to connect with some of our clients better than the younger trainers.”
With the encouragement of Mr. Durkin and her husband, Bob, Ms. Hill enrolled in a personal training certification program at the University of California, San Diego. “It was hard to go back to school,” she acknowledged. “And I was taking anatomy and exercise physiology classes, which involved a lot of memorization.”
She finished the program in 10 months, passed a certification test with the American Council on Exercise, one of the major national certifying bodies for personal trainers, and in the fall of 2002, went back to Mr. Durkin.
The only opening he had was for someone to train a husband and wife, themselves busy executives, at 5 a.m. “Todd couldn’t find any of his trainers who would go in that early,” Ms. Hill recalled. “I said I would!”
For the next two years, she reported for duty at 5 a.m. Soon, the growing number of older clients at Fitness Quest 10 wanted to work with her.
Today, Ms. Hill works only two days a week, starting at the more civilized hour of 8:30 a.m. Most of her clients (currently 14, average age 55) train with her for 60 minutes once or twice a week, working either one on one or in semi-private sessions with another client. (Clients pay on average $70 an hour, which Ms. Hill and the gym split 50-50.)
To help clients develop strength and balance, which is particularly important for older adults, Ms. Hill uses large stability balls, medicine balls and balance boards, as well as traditional weight machines and barbells. But she also tries to devote time to explaining to her clients, many of whom have never exercised, how their workouts are part of a healthy lifestyle, one that can be embarked on despite the limitations of older age.
For that lesson, she can often use herself as an example.
“They relate to the fact that I started late,” Ms. Hill says.
But now that she has, they don’t want her stopping.
“I love training with Sharon,” says Ms. Guest. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when she retires.”