PERMA-based fitness training can pack a positive punch for IDEA fitness professionals looking to contribute to the well-being of our fast-growing population of active older adults.

What Is PERMA?

PERMA is devoted to developing social and mental strength, which can be very helpful in motivating older exercisers. The acronym was coined by Martin Seligman, considered the father of modern positive psychology, in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press 2011). Seligman identifies five pillars of well-being:

  • Positive Emotions
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

With PERMA, Seligman recommends focusing on developing overall well-being, an important shift from his previous outlook on positive psychology, which advocated striving for authentic happiness (Seligman 2002). With well-being theory, Seligman says, the goal is to increase the amount of flourishing both in one’s own life and for others on the planet.

While PERMA applies across the age spectrum, it can be adapted into a fitness program model that can help you, your active older-adult clients, their families and our communities successfully add vivacity and happiness to their years. You will feel great adding these practices to your fitness leader toolkit, too.

A Growth Market

Seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the population. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau found that Americans are increasingly living into their 90s, and experts estimate that by 2030, 20% of Americans will be 65 or older. Because of this, designing and implementing positive health and fitness programs focused on senior health issues and needs is more important than ever. Here are some thoughts and strategies to help you add more value to your programs and to assist you in creating a viable, beneficial and necessary sea change of well-being in the world:

The Why of PERMA


Positivity is a natural high that helps lift our spirits. More than that, research shows positivity broadens our minds and expands our range of vision. Positivity, according to Fredrickson (2009), builds resources, fuels our resilience and transforms us for the better.

How to build positive emotions:

  • Learn people’s names and use them. Get to know your amazing members.
  • Encourage people to share peak moments.
  • Choose uplifting music your students love. Older adults enjoy music that reminds them of their own peak moments of life (Langer 2009).
  • Send greeting cards, and remember anniversaries and celebrations. Ask your students to help you honor and celebrate special times and people.
  • Be active in your community. Our “Trendsetters” class, in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey, supports local events such as Race for the Arts 5K, Komen Race for the Cure® and Walk to Cure Diabetes. We have food drives. At Christmas, we gather goodies for families and children in need. Some members even got together and founded a community library.
  • Have a laugh.

In Positivity (Crown 2009), Dr. Barbara Fredrickson discusses creating a mindset of positivity:

  • Be open.
  • Be appreciative.
  • Be curious.
  • Be kind.
  • Be real.


We create engagement when we are fully present, mindful and creating opportunities for flow that lead us, and our clients, to achieve greater levels of well-being. Flow happens when the entire body is involved in the activity at hand and we “become one” with it (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

How to build engagement:

  • Develop skill levels by varying cho­reography, programming and format.
  • Go outside and enjoy “green exercise.”
  • Encourage mindfulness and appreciation for being in the present moment.
  • Have students sign in with their nondominant hand, or give them the option to close their eyes during a movement to fully experience their proprioception.
  • Remind them to truly experience and savor their abilities.
  • Discuss peak moments your active older adults have experienced. Share and savor these memories.


Positive social connections, promoting social integration and social support, have been linked to positive health behaviors and positive emotional states like feelings of belonging and purpose (McGonigal 2007).

Positive social relationships, coupled with celebrating strengths and virtue, can promote thriving groups, flourishing individuals and greater well-being (Seligman 2011). Relationships can offer a powerful positive influence on our overall health and happiness (Peterson 2006). These are especially important for older adults.

How to build positive relationships:

  • Be a great listener and practice active-listening techniques.
  • Introduce people to each other. Build positive class connections. Be prepared to see what happens and to discover just how closely linked we are to each other.
  • Ask appreciative questions.
  • Greet people at the door and say hello to each person. Give hugs freely.
  • Get in touch with missing members; show you care.


Meaning can be expressed in different forms. In seeking meaning, we may ask, “Why are we here?” and other spiritual questions. The toughest parts of teaching and leading older adults (and living longer ourselves) can be the many losses we experience over time. Not only do we care about our students; we care about their families, too. There is a closeness that abounds if we let this happen.

During the morning of the 9/11 attacks, I was teaching my “Trendsetter” class: about 25 wonderful women. We had no idea about what was transpiring that morning, but during class, a husband, Martin, walked in, and Maureen, a cherished student, collapsed in his arms.

As I started to understand the gravity of the events, all I could think of was to have my students form a circle, hold hands and offer prayers of comfort and hope. Maureen and Martin lost their son, Brian, that morning. An outpouring of support, care and love for friends who have experienced great loss is powerfully touching.

How to build meaning:

  • Be authentically true and loving.
  • Consider, what is your legacy?
  • Take time to show appreciation.
  • Pray, meditate and care.
  • Talk about organ donation.
  • Learn how other cultures express meaning—how they live, celebrate and honor those who have passed.


Achievement is about accomplishing your goals. Achievement equals skill times effort.

How to build achievement:

  • Promote SMART (Systematic, Measur­able, Action-oriented, Realistic, Timed) goal setting.
  • Create “in-class celebrations” and awards of merit.

Every Christmas for the past 12 years, our Trendsetter Dance Team has performed for the holiday luncheon. The members rise to the occasion and love performing for this special event. It inspires each of us toward presentation-level performances, and we all rise up, aiming to do our best.

SPEC vs. DRAIN Model

Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky (2006) describe a transformative model of
lifetime well-being. With the growing population of older adults in mind,
their construct highlights prevention, improvements in quality of life, and reductions in healthcare costs. Their community-building approach contrasts true health care with “sick care,” our
current system.

Their model is built on the acronym SPEC, which stands for strengths, prevention, empowerment and community change. Our current medical model, on the other hand, might be summed up as DRAIN: deficits-based, reactive, alienating, individualistic and negative.

Permanent Changes

A PERMA-based approach supports
the need to honor and care for our older-adult clients, our families and our communities. And because fitness professionals are in a powerful position to help change health care for the better, we can lead the way in redefining what it means to grow older by fostering positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

Defining Positive Psychology

Christopher Peterson (2006) called positive psychology the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It calls for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strengths as with weaknesses; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.

Jane Fonda and the Third Act

Leading people to well-being in “life’s third act,” as Jane Fonda eloquently calls it, helps to create reciprocal expressions of autonomy, empowerment and joy, and will have your clients leaving your program feeling great—and coming back for more.

In her recent TED Talk, Fonda describes a longevity revolution in which people are living more than three decades longer than they did in previous eras. Fonda discusses how the traditional medical model looks at age from the point of decrement and illness. While the typical view looks at age as an arc, she challenges us to look at aging as a stage of development in which there is wholeness, authenticity and wisdom. She encourages us to think of aging, not as pathology, but as an “upward ascension” or as “potential.”


Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky (2006) contrast

Correction:In the chart above, the section beginning “Is focused on problems” should be transposed with the section beginning “Is focused on opportunities” We regret the error.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Frankl, V.E. 1959. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fredrickson, B. L. 2009. Positivity. New York: Crown.
Langer, E.J. 2009. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine.
Locke, E.A., & Latham, G. 2002. Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57 (9), 705-17.
McGonigal, K. 2007. Facilitating fellowship. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4 (6), 72-79.
Peterson, C. 2006. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Prilleltensky, I., & Prilleltensky, O. 2006. Promoting Well-Being: Linking Personal, Organizational, and Community Change. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.
Seligman, M.E.P. 2002. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M.E.P. 2011. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness And Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Elaine Tarantin O'Brien, MAPP

Elaine is a doctoral teaching fellow at Temple University, and one of the first 100 globally to receive a Univ. of Pennsylvania MAPP: Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree in 2008. An author and international presenter, Elaine designs & leads multi-genre, multi-level, (often intergeneration) group dance fitness programs. Elaine offers her signature Positive Energy Psychology: PEP Breaks for special occasions and meetings. An educator and consultant, Elaine encourages people to move well, often and to care for themselves and others. Elaine blends art and science, lifestyle medicine, movement and positive psychology, with a lens on performance, harnessing strengths, creating vitality, compassion and positive well-being in the world. Elaine embraces an appreciative leadership style, joy, and a passion for helping people via interventions with sustainability in heart, body and mind. Elaine won a 2012 IDEA Inspiration Award for her tenure as an IDEA member. To learn more, reach Elaine at [email protected]

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.