Keeping Seniors Motivated

by Sherry Ballou Hanson on Dec 13, 2015

Senior Fitness

The aging of the Baby Boomers guarantees that more trainers will be working with older exercisers. Here’s how to inspire them.

Seniors are the fastest-growing population of Americans in the market for personal training (Kavadlo 2011). Moreover, as a group they have the financial resources to pay for our expertise: 75% of the income and wealth in the U.S belongs to the Baby Boomers, and 10,000 Americans are 
turning 65 every day (FAI 2015).

Clearly, our profession has ample motivation to attract older clients. Yet that does not automatically mean they will stay motivated to work with us. To keep them fit, we have to see things from their point of view.

Today’s seniors are more active physically than previous generations and tend to be healthier. “The challenge is that the diversity is so vast in this population that there is no definitive activity that fits everyone,” says Colin Milner, founder of the International Council on Active Aging. Senior clients can be anywhere from 50 to 100 years old. Some have been active for decades and know what to expect from trainers, while others are sedentary and need a more gradual introduction to physical activity.

“As an exercise professional, you should also stress that regular physical activity can be fun,” says Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, PhD, author of ACSM’s Exercise for Older Adults (Chodzko-Zajko 2014). It’s about quality of life, not quantity of work.

Motivating healthy, active seniors is relatively easy. But what if a new client has arthritis and fears injury? “Work with your senior clients to help them develop activities they can do on their own time and in their own space,” Chodzko-Zajko advises. Once they start to see results, the motivation kicks in. Feeling stronger can inspire lifestyle changes that turn older clients into your most loyal customers—and make them more likely to refer friends and family to you.

Consider Competition

At age 70, Pat Bartels Hastings of Stevensville, Montana, joined a new athletic center, where the swim coach encouraged her to try out masters swimming events. She soon competed in a swim meet, and “very quickly my motivation became the next scheduled swim meet,” she said.

Ten years later, Hastings competes in the 80–84 age group. What is her motivation? “To continue this sense of well-being and good health by keeping on doing what I have been doing to keep the gold in my golden years.” At the National Senior Games last July in Minneapolis, Hastings racked up three gold medals and one bronze.

Find out about competitive opportunities for seniors in your area. Look for activities at the YMCA or with local parks and recreation departments that offer sporting events. People can keep playing far longer than you might suspect.

Jim Besso of Hendersonville, Nevada, plays golf twice a week. Three years ago, at age 77, he competed with his son in a 3-day tournament in Naperville, Illinois. They came in fourth out of 62 teams. Besso, the oldest competitor in the event, concedes he does not play as well as he used to. He acknowledges that as his performance has declined, he has had to adjust his objectives. As a trainer, you can help senior clients adapt to the realities of getting older while finding ways to help them compete—even if it is just with themselves.

Emphasize Cross-Training

It’s most important that older clients perform a selection of activities to maintain balance, power, flexibility and cardiorespiratory capacity. After all, “66% of people aged 80 can’t get up off the ground if they fall,” says Milner, who recommends a series of questions to figure out where to start with an older client. “What does he enjoy, what does he aspire to, and what should he do to maintain that level of activity?”

With senior clients, cross-training is more complex than combining lap swimming and running. You need to emphasize how strength training maintains muscles, tendons and ligaments, thereby protecting joints.

Got a senior with tennis elbow? She will need to back off on court time, but you can suggest she look for other activities. Remember the diversity of this population. Bernie Gardetto of Centennial, Colorado, is still a downhill skier at the age of 80. “Skiing keeps me alive and kickin’. Whether I’m cruising a blue run or racing down a black diamond, skiing demands my complete focus, and in those moments I have not a care in the world. To be able to do this at age 80 is nothing but a blessing from God.”

The American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons encourages weight-bearing exercise for people with osteoarthritis (AAOS 2008). Swimming or even walking in water can relieve joint stiffness and reduce pain. Emphasize that the worst thing your clients can do is nothing, as inactivity weakens the muscles around joints and makes them unstable.

A University of Copenhagen study involving obese men and women 62 and older found that the men benefited from high-intensity training, whereas the women did not. Steen Larsen, PhD, the lead researcher, assigned a regimen of high-intensity exercise three times a week for 6 weeks. The scientists measured OXPHOS (mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation) in muscle and abdominal fat, VO2max and body composition, as well as other metabolic factors, before and after each session. In the men, OXPHOS in muscle and VO2max increased, while body fat decreased, in the 6 weeks (APS 2015).

Thus, in addition to addressing the vast differences in ability among seniors, you must also pay heed to gender differences.

Appeal to Clients’ Interests

Seniors who enjoy group activities might be interested in bowling leagues, cycling with a club or yoga with a friend. Many seniors enjoy country-western dancing or ballroom dancing. Is there a dance studio in your area? Check out your local YMCA for water aerobics or lap-swimming opportunities for the senior who is dealing with chronic arthritis or osteoporosis. Remember that aquatic exercise reduces body weight in the water by 90%.

If your local climate includes a real winter, consider seasonal opportunities for clients who can get out on cross-country skis or ice skates. Snowshoeing is easy and affordable—the startup costs consist basically of a pair of snowshoes. You may have a senior like Bernie Gardetto, who is still whizzing down the slopes. Encourage all your clients to keep at it.

Also think about fun activities seniors can do with their grandkids. For example, bike riding on a local bike path is fun for both. Don’t underestimate the role of grandparenting in motivating seniors.

Focus on High 
Quality in the Present

Seniors are well aware that their remaining years are limited, so be careful about the connotations of urging a long-term strategy. Focus on helping clients make the most of what they can do now, every day.

Seniors have already lost loved ones and seen the ravages of cancer up close. They have friends with physical limitations. Some may be caregivers for a spouse or be bringing up a grandchild. Help clients find meaningful and healthful exercise to brighten their days and keep functioning week to week.

Walking events that raise money for research on multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, breast cancer, arthritis and so forth can be healthy and extremely motivating for seniors. Often people get involved when they lose a loved one, and then they go on and sign up every year. I first walked in a breast cancer support walk in memory of a friend and went on to captain a team for 10 years.

“Long-term” for seniors means keeping on keeping on. Chodzko-Zajko recommends the online EASY Screening Tool ( as an excellent way to find the right level and kind of physical activity for a client. In general, moderate physical activity should be the goal. “The most important strategy is to start with low-intensity physical activity and increase intensity gradually,” he suggests. Make sure clients warm up and cool down adequately. Include strengthening exercises to increase muscle strength around weight-bearing joints to keep your client active and 
injury-free (Chodzko-Zajko 2014).

Set Goals

Start with short-term goals to help your clients see progress and feel motivated to continue. Keeping a daily exercise log is a proven method. Weight loss goals work for some people. For others, the goal may be getting out of a chair and moving beyond chair exercises. The very oldest and frailest clients may simply want to add new moves to their chair routine. Maybe one client wants to participate in the National Senior Games as a swimmer, like Pat Hastings. Are we talking the same language here? You bet we are! All these clients are in the age range of 50–100. Imagine the opportunities for your business, not to mention the good you can do for each individual client.


AAOS (American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons). 2008. Seniors and exercise. Ortho Info. Accessed Oct. 2, 2015.

APS (American Physiological Society). 2015. High-intensity training delivers results for older men—but not for older women. Accessed Oct. 2, 2015.

Chodzko-Zajko, W. 2014. Frequently asked questions about physical activity. In ACSM’s Exercise for Older Adults (1st ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/ Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

FAI (Functional Aging Institute). 2015. Discover how to train the largest & wealthiest untapped market in fitness history. Accessed Oct. 2, 2015.

Kavadlo, A. 2011. Selling to seniors. IDEA Fitness Journal, 8 (9). Accessed Oct. 2, 2015.

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About the Author

Sherry Ballou Hanson

Sherry Ballou Hanson IDEA Author/Presenter