How to Market Exercise Classes for Older Adults

Instead of getting caught up on titles, create classes for ability.

By Cathie Ericson
Feb 25, 2016

The image of the cookie-baking, rocking chair–bound, bespectacled grandma is about as outdated as, well, leg warmers. It’s no secret that today’s older adult is “not your grandpa’s retiree.” Among people retiring—or in retirement—now, many are socially, mentally and physically active. And that’s why fitness facilities that want to attract this cohort need to be particularly careful about marketing language and schedules.

According to fitness presenter Leigh Crews of Cedar Bluff, Alabama, 2011 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, today’s older-adult population, which ranges from active Baby Boomers (Zoomers) to the very frail, draws on a broad spectrum of abilities and needs.

And that can present issues for program directors. “Programming for those of superior chronological age has become increasingly difficult,” states Shannon Fable, director of programming for Anytime Fitness Corporate LLC. “Not only are the needs of this ever-growing group quite different from one person to the next, but how the individuals inside of this age bracket see themselves is very different from person to person.”

Age Is Merely a Number

“There are four generations over the age of 50, and they offer a tremendous diversity in lifestyles, experiences and health status,” notes Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging®, which supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults aged 50 and over. “We are living in a society where age parameters are passé, and yet old habits are hard to break.”

The notion that one size fits all is uniquely absent among Baby Boomers. “People who are aging see themselves differently based on their health, life experiences and personality,” observes Jackie Tally, a senior fitness consultant in Birmingham, Alabama. “You can take two people who are both 75, and they will see themselves in different ways. One may be running marathons, and the other may be dependent and disabled.”

“In my experience, older adults prefer a name other than ‘senior,’” says Bernadette O’Brien of Glen Rock, New Jersey—who at age 85 still teaches fitness classes. “Older adults who are in at least reasonably good health or better appear to like to be referred to as ‘active agers.’ These older adults generally want to enjoy life by keeping their minds and bodies active, spending time with family and friends, traveling, reading, working on the computer, eating healthy and tasty foods, working out, having hobbies, learning new things and exploring new possibilities in their lives,” she shares.

The Name Game

And therein lies the challenge of naming a class designed for this demographic, whose members may recoil from seemingly obvious word choices, such as senior or golden.

At the same time, class names have to do some heavy lifting. As O’Brien notes, the objective is to choose a name that is motivational, so that clients will want to take the class; educational, so that clients will believe they can learn something; and doable, so that clients succeed.

One way to garner feedback on naming is simply to ask those for whom you are programming. In an unscientific poll, Tally talked to four experienced instructors who are themselves aged over 60; she also asked members of her own line dance class, whom she describes as active and fit and definitely in the “younger senior” category.

Her respondents perceived as positive any names with connotations of fitness and good health, such as “Senior Power,” “Healthy for Life,” “Graceful Aging” and “Active Adult Exercise.” Neutral names included “Silver Sneakers” and “Young at Heart.” On the no-go list was anything that was too cutesy, or that could be construed as making fun of being older—for example, “Recycled Teenagers,” “Keenagers,” “Eldercise” and “Elderdance.”

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Many professionals advocate for forgoing age monikers entirely and instead choosing to program by ability.

“Age is a state of mind, and allowing exercisers to choose their own adventure can also help them keep their self-confidence as they age,” observes Fable. “Most members know what they want and need. We may need to provide suggestions and alternatives for specific concerns, but just because people are 70 shouldn’t mean they have to work out in a chair.”

Crews agrees that classifying by age is unlikely to adequately address expectations. “I’ve taught and trained frail 50-year-olds and amazing octogenarians,” she declares. “Classifying by ability level makes more sense, with a bonus of potentially appealing to people of any age who may be deconditioned, recovering from injury or coming to terms with a disability.”

She counsels facilities, trainers and instructors to favor terms such as active aging to describe programs that have a component to combat the aging process and gentle to describe classes that are low-impact to no-impact. “Instead of marketing classes to an age demographic, I suggest marketing the goal of the class and being very specific about the type of clientele it caters to and what the promised outcome might be.”

Milner, who also advocates for keeping age parameters out of class names, maintains that the type of class will dictate who takes it. He advises fitness professionals to offer a description of the class and allow people’s ability to dictate whether the class is right for them, as opposed to assigning an age range. “Make all classes inclusive, and design them around people’s abilities. Chair aerobics classes will speak to those who have that functional limitation, even if they are younger, whereas a marathon training class will attract those who are still running marathons, even if they are much older.”

Do Age-Based Classes Have a Function?

As a senior herself, Tally stresses that she doesn’t view herself as old or unable. “I see myself as being young, even though I am in my 70s. I still seek out challenges, even in exercise and dance, but I don’t want to go to a class that is too hard and even dangerous for me.”

That’s why even though many favor not categorizing classes by age, program managers accustomed to serving an older clientele should be sure to offer seniors a wide variety of choices covering flexibility, balance, strength and cardio. Right now, Tally sees a chasm between CrossFit® and BODYPUMP™ classes at one end of the spectrum and chair classes at the other end.

Tally believes there is a great need for focused instructor training—so that facilities can hire qualified and certified instructors who understand the needs of older adults and can make modifications to suit them.

“Instructors need to know their class members—their strengths and limitations and their health histories—and be able to tailor the program accordingly,” Tally declares. In many cases, she doesn’t believe you can teach people aged 70–90 years the same program that you teach those aged 30–40 years.

“You must pace differently, treat them with respect, praise their efforts and create an environment in which they look forward to attending again and again,” Tally advises. Of course, these are universal desires, but older adults might respond especially well to inclusivity.

Welcoming Older Adults to Class

O’Brien agrees that knowledgeable instructors are key, and she counsels that program directors would benefit from taking professional development courses to learn more about aging populations. She herself offers progressions and regressions of each movement as she teaches participants at various levels of capability.

Tally has seen that sometimes the barrier can be to get new people to come to the class at all. To address this, she recommends that fitness facilities hold open houses with samples of classes, so people can experience the various choices and meet the instructors to help find a fit.

She also suggests that facilities and programs maintain websites and social media platforms, where they can provide candid class descriptions and show pictures of their offerings.

Overall, states Milner, people aged between 40 and 90 don’t see themselves as “old,” so using a class name that highlights age will alienate the vast majority of these older adults. “We are in a transition phase and in the throes of a rebranding revolution for senior centers and classes,” he says. “The question is, are you on the front end or the back end? Now is the time to consider changing your vocabulary, or you will likely alienate a significant population, at a potentially serious cost to your business.”

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Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a Portland, OregonÔÇôbased writer and fitness enthusiast. You can find her running, boot camping or kickboxing when sheÔÇÖs not protecting her online reputation @cathieericson.

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