5 Top Trends in Older-Adult Fitness

Get your business ready for the age explosion.

By Cody Sipe, PhD
Nov 7, 2018

The aging of the global population is single-handedly forcing and inspiring change in many ways—both obvious and subtle. The continued growth of the older population for the next 30+ years will influence the fitness industry in ways that we probably can’t even imagine yet. To help you prepare for this growth, here are some noteworthy aging trends (counting down from least to most important from a business standpoint) that could affect you over the next 5–10 years.

Trend #5: Brain Fitness Comes of Age

The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease has increased dramatically in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue. The number of people in the United States who have dementia is predicted to nearly triple by 2050 (Alzheimer’s Association 2018). While a cure for Alzheimer’s is not likely close at hand, neuroscience research is exploding, and the mysteries of the brain are being disentangled.

Although computer-based brain training is a growing market that is expected to top $700 million worldwide in the year 2020 (Sparks 2016), we now know that this training is relatively ineffective. It improves specific cognitive tasks, but it doesn’t translate to other tasks or to daily life (Ballesteros et al. 2015). However, aerobic exercise and resistance exercise are healthy—and stimulating—for the brain, and specific types of exercises (such as tai chi, dance, sports and complex motor activities) that combine physical and cognitive tasks may be even more beneficial (Bamidis et al. 2014). Plus, a promising new area of neuroscience research is investigating the potential effectiveness of using specific types of movements to improve specific brain functions (Bamidis et al. 2014).

What does this mean for you now?

  1. Clients want brain fitness, so educate yourself on neuroscience and evidence-based brain fitness programming.
  2. Start talking to your clients and potential clients about the importance of brain fitness.
  3. Incorporate specific brain fitness programming into your training.

Trend #4: The Rise of the Fit Senior Is Underway

Get onboard: Every other year, more than 10,000 athletes compete in the National Senior Games, and many others participate in statewide qualifying competitions. Medals are awarded in 20 categories, including track and field, swimming, pickleball, tennis, basketball, archery, softball, cycling, triathlon, and volleyball. The increase in the older-adult population and a growing interest in competition have led to a steady rise in the number of competitors in the oldest age groups (80+, 90+, 100+) (NSGA 2018).

Organizations like Growing Bolder and Aging Evolution are promoting the benefits of participation in sports and fitness activities among seniors and are trying to change the negative images and stereotypes associated with aging. Baby boomers fueled the growth of the fitness industry during their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they’re continuing to flock to fitness-related activities, including athletic competition. The swelling ranks of the 65+ population, increases in life expectancy, changing attitudes about senior fitness, and heavy promotion of sports participation for older adults could lead to large increases in the number of master and senior athletes. These factors spell “opportunity” for trainers.

What does this mean for you now?

  1. If you have the ability and interest to train older athletes, you have the opportunity.Research local networks and resources such as your state Olympic or senior games. These will help you connect with older athletes, learn more about their needs and interests and develop programs for training them.
  2. Talk to senior athletes to find out more about what type of training services they are looking for.

Trend #3: Leading-Edge Baby Boomers Hit Their 80s

In 2021 the boomers will start turning 75, and in 2026 they will start turning 80. While 75 and 80 aren’t magical ages, they are critical time points when we observe rapid declines in both physiological markers and functional abilities. People over age 80 are much more likely to be frail, have functional deficits and chronic conditions, be on multiple medications, have dementia, and be more likely to fall. Although we know that people can be fit, healthy, strong and vibrant at any age, it is much more likely that the typical 80-year-old needs training that is focused on these age-related issues.

On the other hand, because many boomers will be fit and healthy, the fitness industry needs to provide appropriate programs that aren’t ageist or limiting. Balance, mobility and cognitive training will become much more important, as will the need for close supervision, such as one-on-one and small-group training. Connecting with healthcare providers and using sound approaches will also be necessary. Providers are increasingly looking for exercise programs that are appropriate for their older clients, and they understand the importance of evidence-based exercise to maximize results and safety.

What does this mean for you now?

  1. Decide if you really want to train this population, and consider how such training might affect your business.
  2. Educate yourself on how to create programs that will allow you to train these clients safely and effectively.
  3. Connect with healthcare providers who know, like and trust you and will refer their patients to you. A great starting point is the STEADI program offered by the CDC (www.cdc.gov/steadi/index.html).

Trend #2: Gen Xers Enter Their 60s

With so much talk about the aging boomers and hype about millennials, it seems that Generation X (currently aged 40–53) is something of a “lost” generation. Although Generation X is a little smaller than the groups on either side of it, it is still a force to be reckoned with. Right now, most Gen Xers are still raising their children, paying for college and progressing in their careers. In just 5–10 years, however, many of them will be empty-nesters with more time and money on their hands to invest in their own health and fitness.

As we’ve learned with the boomers, turning 60 is a critical threshold of maturation, and Gen Xers will start thinking, acting and behaving much more like the boomers who have preceded them. Their numbers will start increasing the total 55+ population numbers. Plus, they’ll be looking for fitness programs that don’t stereotype them based on their age, and they will prefer fitness professionals who can handle—and be empathetic to—their changing health and functional needs.

What does this mean for you now?

  1. The millennial fitness market is crowded, so focus instead on the Gen X and boomer populations, which are collectively larger and have more purchasing power than the millennials do.
  2. Educate yourself about the difference in people’s mindsets, values and behaviors as they reach age 55 and older.
  3. Keep your focus on the wants and needs of the 55+ population, because it will continue to grow steadily over the next 30+ years.

Trend #1: More Businesses Are Starting to Target Older Adults

In the current fitness industry landscape, there are relatively few big players vying for the older-adult market. Most of the competition is coming from boutiques such as Pilates and yoga and from cycling studios. However, the competition is about to heat up as the number of boutique clubs continues to explode and larger players like big-box health clubs, senior fitness franchises, medical fitness centers, integrative healthcare centers and new startups come into the adult fitness market.

Two examples stand out:

  • Nifty after Fifty®, a health club model with 29 locations, was created in 2006 by Sheldon Zinberg, MD. It includes a broad mix of programs, with clinically supervised full-body fitness, targeting the needs of older adults.
  • Ageless Fitness is a licensed small-group personal training model for clients 55 and older that’s poised to make waves within the next few years. This program includes everything a trainer or health club needs—like online and social media marketing, educational content, sales tools, trainer education and fitness programming—to attract affluent and educated older adults.

What does this mean for you now?

  1. You still have an opportunity to “get in early” by focusing your studio or club on the older market.
  2. Establish yourself as the “go-to” expert on active aging in your community, to safeguard yourself from the inevitable competition that is to come.
  3. Get a fitness business coach or join a mastermind program to make sure your business is solid.

Preparing for the Future

To stay competitive and successful in any marketplace, you need to continually adapt to the changing needs of consumers. The explosion of the older population represents an opportunity for those who are willing to change to meet that group’s needs and wants, and it represents a threat to those who are not. It is the single most important trend facing the fitness industry over the next 5–10 years. Will you be ready?


References

Alzheimer’s Association. 2018. 2018 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 14 (3), 367–429.
Ballesteros, S., et al. 2015. Maintaining older brain functionality: A targeted review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 55, 453–77.
Bamidis, P.D., et al. 2014. A review of physical and cognitive interventions in aging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 206–20.
NSGA (National Senior Games Association). 2018. History of the NSGA. Accessed Sept. 4, 2018: nsga.com/history.
Sparks, S.D. 2016. Lumosity, other brain-training products get federal scrutiny. Education Week, 35 (20), 1, 12.

Cody Sipe, PhD

Cody Sipe, PhD

Cody Sipe, PhD, is a respected authority on fitness for older adults with 25 years in the industry. He is a professor, researcher, international educator and co-founder of the Functional Aging Institute. Cody is currently an associate professor and director of clinical research in the doctoral physical therapy program at Harding University. He was recognized as the IDEA Program Director of the Year in 2005 and was a finalist for the IDEA Fitness Innovator of the Year award in 2019.

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