Picture this common scenario. You are just preparing to teach your regular 5:30 pm fitness class when one of your participants asks if you would mind turning down the music a little during the workout. Twenty minutes into the class, another participant announces from the back row, “I love this song! Can you please turn up the volume?” You look around at your group and realize the considerable age difference between the two participants. The one who wants to rock out to her favorite song is about 20 years old, whereas the one who asked for the volume to be lowered appears to be 60. How do you reconcile their requests?

As group fitness leaders, we have never been as challenged as we are today to meet the needs of a diverse participant base. More people from a greater number of generations are now exercising. By appreciating and understanding the different needs of various generations, instructors can teach fitness classes that recognize and accommodate every age group. In my case, research, observation and years of teaching fitness have allowed me to come up with some strategies that appeal to different generations. Perhaps my experiences will enhance your awareness of generation gaps and suggest ideas you can use.

The Matures: From Soup Lines to Rosie the Riveter

The “Matures” were born between 1929 and the early 1940s. This age group’s challenging beginnings as children of the Depression (1929-39) or World War II (1939-45) were actually followed by years of fairly good fortune. The economic burst that followed World War II in the 1950s not only springboarded many of the Matures’ careers but also secured this generation’s earning potential.

For the most part, members of this group worried little about finding a job, worked extremely hard, had enough disposable income to buy what they needed and could afford to raise three or four children—all on one salary. In the family, the husband was the breadwinner, while the wife looked after the children, kept the home clean and prepared the meals.

Taking part in structured exercise programs past school years was not a priority for this generation. The concept of exercising to get into shape was unfamiliar. The few maverick Matures who tried “aerobics” or Jazzercise-type classes were already in their 40s or 50s when these classes were introduced. Today, though, as this group moves through retirement, gentler forms of exercise (such as walking) or leisure activities (like gardening) are replacing the arduous work of earlier years.

Nonetheless, group fitness classes may appeal to this generation, whose members have an increasing desire for social interaction, generous amounts of free time and a growing awareness of the benefits of improving quality of life. Keep these driving forces in mind as you teach your classes. Incorporate opportunities for older clients to socialize during, before or after class; point out to Matures how exercises performed in class can improve the movements they do during their daily lives; and if you teach an exercise designed to improve life quality, be sure to say so!

In general, Matures greatly appreciate product and service quality. Therefore, to integrate and retain this demographic group, couple a professional demeanor with politeness and promptness. When using names, physical touch or direct address, err on the side of being too formal rather than too familiar.

The Boomers: From Hula Hoops to Bra Burning

The well-known term baby boomer refers to someone born during the population explosion that lasted from just after World War II to 1966. This baby boom most likely occurred due to the combination of a strong postwar economy and a rise in the number of immigrants of child-bearing years living in the United States and Canada.

Boomers are the single largest population group in both the U.S. and Canada and continue to be these countries’ fastest-growing population base. From January 1, 1996, through January 1, 2013, more than 11,000 Americans will turn 50 every day—that’s more than 330,000 every month (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association [IHRSA] 1999).

By its sheer size, this population group exerts an incredible influence on how the sales and service industry responds to boomers’ needs. As suggested in the book Boom, Bust and Echo 2000 (Foot 1999), boomers are not necessarily more ingenious than those who preceded them. But boomers are such a huge group that when they take notice of a product or service, it seems like everyone is talking about it. Boomers born toward the start of the population burst (referred to as “front-end” boomers) (Foot 1999) are highly affluent and now in their peak earning years. As an aggregate, front-end boomers are receiving trillions of dollars from estate and property inheritances from their parents. Boomers own their own homes and are less transient than their younger cohorts. Boomers also enjoy the pleasures of life, including fine dining, spa treatments and travel to interesting locales.

Although this group generally enjoys good health, boomers are conscious of their vulnerability and mortality and are attuned to the changes in their bodies (IHRSA 1999). Because boomers have disposable income and are knowledgeable about what is required for good health, they are investing in wellness programs to maintain or improve their health status. Boomers were truly the pioneers in bringing fitness and group exercise to the forefront 25 to 30 years ago. Members of this influential age group were the first to incorporate regular exercise into their adult lives. They have been exercising since their early 20s and are more “fitness, exercise and health club oriented than any previous generation” (IHRSA 1999). Boomers rejuvenated the club industry, and they truly understand and believe in the benefits of exercise.

Like the Matures, boomers value quality service and products. They also expect service providers to stay attuned to boomers’ needs. For example, they take for granted the fact that fitness classes will start on time, end on time and follow consistent formats. They notice whether an instructor is wearing attire that is appropriate for the class. And they want fitness professionals to be available for questions before or after class. You may also notice that while front-end boomers now want less vigorous activity, back-end boomers (those born toward the end of the population burst) still seek intense workouts.

To satisfy boomers, who still see themselves as young and capable yet are dealing with increasing joint pains, provide lots of intensity and impact options. For example, at The Fitness Group, we teach a hugely successful class called “Step Workout.” The cardiovascular conditioning portion of the class consists of 20 minutes of basic, yet intense, athletic-style step patterns followed by five minutes of high/low impact and five minutes of interval work on the step. In each class phase, the instructor provides lots of intensity options. The variety mixes up the monotony of a low-complexity cardio workout while encouraging participants to mix and match their intensity levels according to need.

A big key to reaching boomers: They like to be educated and kept abreast of current information, so discuss a hot topic or fitness fact during each workout. For example, when Pilates and other types of mind-body programs hit mainstream fitness, boomers were the first to ask how these disciplines could benefit them. Once given a tidbit of information, a boomer is inclined to do some independent research, then register for a class. Boomers also want practical advice on how to fight the effects of aging, so disseminate handouts or fit tips on topics like fat loss, body composition, health-related disease prevention and wellness. By sharing information in this way, you will add another dimension to your fitness class and entice participants to return.

Interestingly enough, boomers want to see their instructors working hard. Remember that the minute you walk in to teach your class, you are “on.” Move participants around the workout space and create opportunities for interaction. Boomers also expect consistency. To hang on to them, be sure to teach your class on a regular basis, subbing out as infrequently as possible.

Generation X: From Pac Man to Cell Phones

In North America, there are more than 46 million Americans (IHRSA 1999) and 5.6 million Canadians (Foot 2000) born between 1965 and 1980. This population group, which falls on the heels of the boomers, is “Generation X” (the origin of the term is debatable). Gen Xers, or “Nexers” as they are sometimes called, are an extremely diverse group with ranging interests. It is a common error to categorize Xers as a 20-something group without a care in the world. Remember, many Xers are now in their 30s, raising families and struggling with careers in a competitive labor market.

While Xers make up approximately 49 percent of all club members, they run the risk of becoming a forgotten generation in fitness clubs because our industry “hasn’t spent enough time understanding this group’s recreation and fitness interests or their lifestyle values and perspectives” (IHRSA 1999). Our classes cannot survive on boomers alone. We need to appeal to the up-and-coming Xers and the newer generation following them, Generation Y.

Xers are distinctive in several ways. Rather than living to work, they generally work in order to live the life they want to live. They like to have a good time but are often financially pressured to make ends meet. They lead fairly busy and stressful lives, yet they are resourceful in making sure they don’t sacrifice happiness in order to rise up the corporate ladder.

Gen Xers have specific fitness class expectations. Instead of engaging in hard-core fitness for its own sake, they choose exercise that offers balance and relevance in their lives. Running for exercise’s sake, for example, is not as important as trail running to experience the beautiful outdoors. The kickboxing trend was driven by Gen Xers who saw martial-arts-influenced classes as places to develop specific skills while getting a workout.

Xers bring a new energy and openness to group fitness classes. Group indoor cycling, cardioboxing, treadmill classes and mind-body programs have all seen a resurgence based on the new and fresh perspective of this group. Sporting events like the Eco-Challenge, a team event composed of multiple activities—such as paddling, climbing, biking and running—appeal to Xers, who are striving to connect nature with physical and mental challenges.

Drawing Xers into traditional fitness classes requires only minimal inventiveness. Simply add variety to your regular class formats and stay in touch with current trends. Plan new and interesting moves, not only in the cardio section
of classes, but also in the strength section. Interesting doesn’t have to mean complicated. If you are able to add a touch of yoga, Pilates, Latin dance or whatever movement form is hot at the moment, do so. With Generation X, variety is in; complicated choreography is out. Clubs like Crunch market well to this group.

As a Gen Xer myself, I know my peers can be impatient and time sensitive. They dislike waiting, so start and finish your classes on time. Once in your class, Xers don’t feel the same pressures to be perfect that baby boomers do, so Xers easily try new things. They want to be in the present moment and are willing to try programs that may seem a bit fanatical. Of all generations, this group will respond most to your teaching reminders to focus on the process of the class and not necessarily the final product.

Generation Y: From ’N Sync to the Internet

Hot on the heels of the Xers are the hip and radical “echo boomers,” known as Generation Y (Foot 1999). Born between 1980 and 1995, echo boomers are the children of front-end baby boomers. Generation Ys currently dominate all school years—from kindergarten to sophomore year in college. Their parents provide them with an expendable income and spending power. Ethnically quite diverse, this group forms a truly global culture via the
expansive capabilities of the Internet (Lopiano-Misdom & De Luca 1997).

Hours of television and computer use coupled with fast food and less and less physical education, both in the school systems and in neighborhoods, are creating an epidemic of unfit and overfat children and teens. So far, Generation Y is failing when it comes to fitness. As fitness leaders, our challenge is to tap into the interests of this generation to get its members exercising and appreciating the benefits of activity.

To reach this group, invite teachers to bring students to your facility to participate in a class during nonpeak hours. Or provide a special, club-sponsored workout at a local school. The goal is to expose students to organized fitness classes as early as possible—to get kids to see the relevance, value and excitement of group exercise. Otherwise our industry will have a definite challenge later, since Gen Y’s interests lie far beyond a structured workout. Motivated by a desire for new adrenaline rushes and change, these young people choose radical activities and extreme sports that break boundaries.

You can instruct various generations—either simultaneously or separately— as long as you provide appealing and appropriate options. But you need insight into the different age groups and a degree of planning. Finally, remember that whether your participants grew up wearing penny loafers, sneakers, Nike cross trainers or Skechers, the underlying purpose of any group fitness class is to provide a good workout that is fun, safe and results oriented.