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Equipping Older Clients for the Future

Over the past two decades, fitness equipment manufacturers have gone from peddling basic barbells to hawking digital talking machines. During this time, many new products have rocked the way fitness professionals design exercise programs, while other gadgets have fizzled away, never to be seen again. Now, with the first of the Baby Boomers turning 60 this year, a new line of senior-friendly products is set to debut—and the stakes are high for equipment makers and their target audience.

These innovative tools promise to help fitness managers, program directors, personal fitness trainers and group exercise instructors better serve the diverse needs of the swelling “Gray Wave.” But fitness professionals who are trying to sort through the clutter of new product announcements need to keep one thing in mind when selecting any age-adaptive equipment: All these newfangled features, design changes or functional improvements are useless if they fail to meet the needs and abilities of the older-adult market. As Wayne Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, and strength training adviser to the Nautilus Institute, says, “What makes a product come alive is the programming behind it. It’s how you activate it that makes the difference to the exerciser.” Here’s a road map to use next time you are considering any tools or equipment for this special group of clients.

Determining Your Clients’ Needs

If you are not part of the Baby Boom Generation, how can you personally relate to their needs? Even if you are part of the pack, it is sometimes challenging to rate how well equipment is designed to adapt to age-specific goals and abilities.

Here is a simple exercise you can use to identify the needs of your current older clientele and to determine which type of older clients you intend to serve in the future. This information will give you a better sense of how to market to these specific clients, what programs to offer and what tools you will need to get the job done.

Using a blank piece of paper, create two columns. In the first column, write down the percentage of your current clients who fall into a variety of categories, such as age; gender; income; education; ethnicity; and physical abilities.

After you have identified your current demographics in column one, use the second column to get a clearer picture of which older-client segments you will be serving in the future. Consider several variables. For example, which group offers the greatest potential for growth? Which has the most disposable income? Which has the greatest physical needs, and how would you meet these needs? Whom do you wish to have as your clients? Will this be an age- or gender-targeted group, or will it be all-encompassing and instead based on physical functioning and ability?

In the example below, this club’s current members are mostly college-educated Caucasian men and women who are generally fit, under 40 years of age and fairly affluent. Based on extensive local and national market research, it is projected that this club’s future membership will be made up mostly of multiethnic, working women who will struggle to remain fit and healthy as they move through their 50s and 60s and into their 70s. Knowing this will be most helpful when the club’s fitness manager plans future programming and allots future equipment expenditures in next year’s budget.

Evaluating Equipment Needs

Now that you have invested the time to identify the needs and abilities of your current and future older members, you need to decide what types of tools will best serve your clientele. Here are five rules to remember whenever you are evaluating potential fitness equipment or tools for mature clients:

1. Evaluate based on your clients’ needs—not your own; for a look at the vastly different needs of mature members, see “Levels of Functioning Among Older Adults” on page 58.

2. Investigate different manufacturers on the Internet to see which companies have recently introduced new equipment or retooled their existing products to make them more age-friendly.

3. Ask manufacturers for local references that use the tools you are considering in a similar setting and with a similar audience.

4. Assemble an informal focus group of your older members or clients to try out potential tools at a local fitness store or fitness trade show. Or better yet, ask the manufacturer to bring a demo product to your facility. But do make sure that the equipment is the exact model that targets the specific ability level(s) that you plan to serve.

5. Look at the product’s marketing materials to see if the manufacturer features older models in its literature. Does the brochure describe in detail the product’s age-friendly features? Does the manufacturer cite research that has been done with older adults using this particular product?

Tooling Up for the Big Boom

No matter which stage of life they pass through, Baby Boomers are famous for changing the way people look at that particular milestone or passage. Savvy manufacturers and marketers know that today’s 50 is yesterday’s 30—and they can only be salivating at the prospects of creating the new standard for 60 and up! So, what are manufacturers of fitness-related products actually doing to meet the demand? Here’s a look at some of the new resistance, cardiovascular, balance, flexibility and other machines coming down the pike.

Pièce de Résistance

Loss of strength can have a serious impact on the quality of life for any older person. Being able to offer mature clients the right tool to restore their strength is a vital part of keeping Baby Boomers independent and able to perform the activities of daily living for as long as possible. Luckily, there is no shortage of innovations in the resistance arena.

Stackless Resistance Equipment

One of the fastest-growing categories today is equipment that is not reliant on a weight stack to provide resistance. This equipment may use hydraulics, air, water, cables, body weight or bands to provide resistance. The advantage to stackless equipment is that it can reduce the intimidation many older adults experience when they first begin a resistance training program. These innovative products take little effort to figure out, can start at a low resistance and can be progressed in small increments.

In this category, Continuing Fitness recently unveiled what it calls the first resistance training chair on the market. Ideal for seated strength training exercises during chair aerobics classes or personal training at home, this product requires virtually no setup and folds up like a lawn chair for easy storage.

Magnum Fitness Systems just introduced Motion Series, a line of resistance equipment that features simple adjustments and is based on the user’s body weight. In a similar vein, efi Sports Medicine’s GRAVITYGroup Life Series relies on body weight and has been designed to appeal to two types of older adults: those who are active and those who are sedentary.

Thera-Band® has recently debuted its Thera-Band Exercise Station, which combines strength, balance and flexibility training into one convenient system. Made of high-impact, lightweight polyethylene, the exercise station has six connectors for tubing, while the center cavity acts as a table base for exercise balls and balance products. The station is ideal for group exercise classes and personal training in that it offers older users a nonintimidating workout without requiring them to move from machine to machine.

Also in this category is the Laser Series from Fit Express, which operates on a hydraulic system that allows users to easily get on the equipment and go, eliminating the need for timely and complicated adjustments.

These tools also offer a low-impact workout that is gentle on older joints.

Cable Resistance Equipment

Today’s cable columns come in all shapes and sizes to suit a range of older adults. Most of this equipment offers unobstructed entry and exit—a feature that targets older individuals with a variety of functional abilities and disabilities, including those who are wheelchair-bound. Cable resistance products are available from Life Fitness, Keiser®, Cybex, Nautilus®, FreeMotion Fitness and Technogym®, to name but a few.

The latest entry into this category is Kinesis from Technogym, which features a turnkey system that includes a training program, full-gravity technology and 3-D pulleys. Of particular note is the large circular pin, which enables those with arthritis or other hand injuries to adjust the resistance easily. Kinesis also comes equipped with a visual learning screen that can be integrated into clients’ wellness programs, offering users access to a variety of preprogrammed options.

Another new entry is the Life Fitness Cable Motion single-station strength training product, which has dual weight stacks and independent handles. These last two features are especially good for older adults who have had a stroke and can use only one arm.

Keiser also offers a cable system that comes in columns or that can be wall mounted. The equipment starts with a low resistance, which enables mature users to train at their chosen speed.

Weight Stacks (Selectorized Equipment)

The backbone of resistance training for decades, the weight stack has come a long way in becoming more age-friendly. Most weight stacks now offer low starting resistances and small incremental increases. Some manufacturers offer seats that can be moved out of the way for easy wheelchair access, while others offer range-of-motion limiters.

For example, the Nautilus 2ST line (which features eight machines targeting specific muscles) was recently used as part of a successful nursing-home study for frail elderly in Orange City, Florida. Twenty-seven wheelchair-bound residents participated in a 14-week program with the goal of improving strength and reducing pain. After training two times per week, 1 set of 8–12 reps of six exercises performed on a five-machine Nautilus 2ST circuit, all 19 subjects who finished the program showed marked increases in leg and upper-body strength; and they also reported significant pain reduction. All but one (a double amputee) were able to rise from their wheelchairs unassisted by the end of the study (Westcott et al. 2005). “The key is starting seniors on strength training equipment that provides structure and structured movement patterns,” says Westcott, who led the study. “We also are seeing a return to the ‘basic and brief’ training philosophy.”

The 2ST line features gas-assisted seat and back pad adjustments, which make for smooth position changes and user individualization; 1-pound incremental weight adjustments, which permit rational resistance selections for various user types and conditions (and show users marked progress as they gain strength); belt-drive systems that complement independent, converging movement arms for a wide range of upper-body exercises; and an optional range-of-motion mechanism for specialized markets.

The Core Spinal Fitness System designed by MedX is a spine-strengthening program. The system consists of five machines designed to improve strength. It offers low starting resistance and the ability to increase the resistance by 2-pound increments.

As with other types of equipment, the efficacy of any weight stack depends on the user. To get the most out of selectorized equipment, clients need to know how to use it properly. See the “Resistance Equipment Buyer’s Checklist” on page 55 to help you when assessing any new strength training tool.

Handheld Resistance

For small facilities and studios, space can be a challenge. If large equipment doesn’t fit into your scheme, consider Bowflex® SelectTech 552 or 220 Dumbbells. The 552 model combines 15 sets of weights into one; the 220 model has eight sets in one. With the turn of a dial, users can change resistance from 5 pounds to 52.5 pounds on the 552 or from 2.5 pounds to 20 pounds on the 220.

Cardiovascular Tools

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, older adults can achieve substantial health benefits with just a moderate amount of cardiovascular activity each day (e.g., at least 30 minutes of brisk walking). So what new tools can you use to help your older adults achieve higher endurance levels and cardiovascular capacity?

Recumbent Steppers

The recumbent stepper has quickly become a favorite of older adults and the communities that serve them. According to a 2003 study, 79% of senior living communities have purchased recumbent steppers for their residents (see “Equipment Sales in Retirement Communities” on this page).

Many of today’s recumbent steppers offer older adults a total-body workout with the additional advantage of placing low to no stress on aging joints (e.g., hips, knees and shoulders). Features that target older adults include seats that afford easy access when transferring from a wheelchair; a manual quick start; adjustable seat positions; and large, easy-to-read displays.

One example of an age-friendly recumbent stepper is the NuStep® TRS 4000, which offers a swivel seat for easy transfer, along with full upper- and lower-body workout options. Newcomer Biodex Medical Systems offers the BioStep elliptical cross-trainer, which boasts zero joint impact.

Recumbent Bikes

Like the recumbent stepper, the recumbent bike is a favorite in many senior living communities (see “Equipment Sales in Retirement Communities” on this page). Contributing to its popularity are the step-through frames of the Star Trac Pro, SciFit® and Magnum recumbents and the added comfort that the Technogym, SportsArt or Life Fitness seats provide. All these products are designed to be easy to enter and exit, and all are adaptable for people with a wide range of abilities.

A recent addition to this category is the SportsArt Fitness X-Trainer, which offers an upper-body training option that is unilateral (one arm at a time). This option is ideal for a person who has had a stroke or is weaker in one arm than the other.


The treadmill is the number-one product purchased for residents of senior communities (see “Equipment Sales in Retirement Communities” on page 56).

In fact, there are so many treadmills on the market that you could get your own daily exercise allotment by checking them all out at the next fitness trade show you attend!

When selecting a treadmill for this audience, look for one that offers a low starting speed and a handrail. Since many older adults have visual challenges, they will also appreciate being able to read the display panel comfortably, so it should have good color contrast and legible text instructions.

One age-friendly example is the Landice L7 Rehabilitation Treadmill, which starts at 0.1 mile per hour, offers medical rails and has a low step, making it more accessible for lower-functioning clients (see “Levels of Functioning Among Older Adults” on page 58 to help you determine which clients fit into this category).

Combining two motions into one, the Nautilus Commerical Series TreadClimber® TC916 provides an efficient way for older club members to combine low-impact walking with gradual hill climbing for the intense results of running without the high impact on the joints.

“Comparing Different Treadmills” below provides a sample exercise to use when assessing different models and features for your facility.

Upright Bikes

Most major manufacturers offer some form of upright bike. However, the ideal bike for older exercisers would be one that makes it simple for them to mount the bike and get started. Other considerations include the comfort level of the seat and how easy it is for a short or overweight client to get on and off the bike. Another primary concern is the readability of information on the display panel. Look for color contrast, large-size lettering and simple text instructions. (If you are blessed with perfect vision, ask an older member to check for you!) You should also be sure that the bike offers a perceived exertion chart, as this is especially important for older adults who are starting an exercise program.

The Star Trac Pro upright bike features a low center bar, which makes it easier for lower-functioning seniors to get on and off the equipment.

Clients looking for an upper-body challenge while working the legs might find the Schwinn Airdyne bike convenient.

Stair Climbers & Elliptical Machines

Although stair climbers and elliptical machines are popular with younger clients, the instability of many of these products makes them unsuitable for older adults with a low level of functioning. That said, when selecting these machines for your fitter older clients, look for the following features:

  • an easy-to-read display panel with large buttons
  • easy-to-change controls for elevation and speed
  • simple operating instructions
  • easy entry and exit
  • a comfortable, nonslip footrest
  • a control panel that is within easy reach or is usable from the handles
  • minimal preprogrammed workouts
  • arm adjustments that are easy to access and adjust
  • a heart rate monitor

Since not all stride lengths are made equal, technology that adjusts to the individual user is a plus. The Nautilus MyStride EV916 elliptical allows users to vary stride length dynamically up to 30 inches in length.

Balance Equipment

Did you know that the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimates that 1 in every 3 Americans over the age of 65 falls every year, often with devastating consequences? One way to help your older clients avoid this fate is to offer them tools that will improve their balance. Thankfully, manufacturers now provide a wide choice of balance equipment, including wobble boards, rocker boards and BOSU® Balance Trainers, as well as more comprehensive training systems, such as the Biodex Fall Risk Assessment and Conditioning Program. The most important thing when choosing one of these tools is to ensure that it matches the capabilities of your clients.

The Cybex Trazer® is a new interactive tool that helps improve muscle and mental agility by using a screen that records reaction time, acceleration, speed, power and balance during interactive virtual activities.

Also tailored for older users are the Fitterfirst Balance Aids. These lightweight poles with self-standing rubber-mounted bases offer support during balance board exercises and encourage a stable, upright posture.

Flexibility Devices

According to the National Institute on Aging, flexibility training can give older adults more freedom of movement to do the things they need to do and the things they like to do. Tools to improve flexibility vary from videotapes and bands to comprehensive stretching machines offered by companies such as True, Keiser and Precor®. One key feature to look for is whether clients can get up off the floor easily, especially those older adults who are weak and have a low level of function.

The Keiser Stretch Zone is a simple workstation that allows older clients to perform a minimum of 17 stretches and accommodates up to eight exercisers at a time. Another good balance tool for this population is the STOTT PILATES Armchair Pilates series of videos, which are ideal for mature exercisers new to Pilates training. These 20-minute routines help increase circulation, improve flexibility and strengthen the core muscles vital for functional fitness.

Other Devices

There are many other devices out there that have been designed with the older adult in mind. Unfortunately, the space constraints of this article do not allow us to list them all. Since walking is gaining in popularity among older exercisers, here are some additional innovations for this favored activity.

The Thorlos Walking System offers a footwear system in which the three major components (i.e., socks, footbeds and shoes) are engineered to fit and work integrally. The product is designed for clients aged 40–70 years.

The WALKVEST Training System provides a weighted vest that starts at 2 pounds and can be increased in half-pound increments; it also comes with a professional coaching CD.

Finally, the Exerstrider® fitness walking poles offer a challenge and added balance to any older adults who enjoy the great outdoors.

Retooling Your Approach

The approach you take when buying equipment today will have far-reaching implications for the clients you appeal to in the future. Knowing how to make productive product choices for an aging clientele could be the thing that puts you ahead of the competition tomorrow. By identifying the needs and abilities of your target audience, you will be well equipped when the age wave crests in the next decade.

Members Members

Resistance Equipment Buyer’s Checklist

This checklist was designed by the International Council on Active Aging to help you meet the needs of older adults when you are purchasing any type of resistance training equipment.

rIs the tool low-impact in nature?

rDoes it offer unobstructed entry and exit, especially for individuals with a variety of functional abilities and disabilities?

rDoes it clearly indicate where users should sit and place their hands and feet?

rDoes it provide adjustments that allow individuals of various body sizes and functional limitations to be in the proper position while exercising, to prevent compromising the joints?

rAre all hand, seat and pad positions and adjustments clear and simple to locate and operate?

rAre users able to change resistance while seated?

rCan the resistance be increased in small increments (ideally, 1-pound increments)?

rAre there instructional placards with simple diagrams, easy-to-read print and correct-usage information?

rIs there a low starting resistance (under 5 pounds)?

rDoes the tool offer range-of-motion adjustments to accommodate users with joint dysfunction?

rDo the pins have large knobs for those with gripping issues due to conditions like arthritis or stroke?

rIs the equipment nonintimidating in appearance and function?

rIs it user-friendly and simple to understand?

rDoes it have a minimal number of moving parts, for safety and ease of use?

Equipment Sales in Retirement Communities

In a 2003 industry survey, these were the top products that retirement homes and other community settings purchased for their older residents:

treadmills 93%

strength training equipment 81

recumbent bikes 79

recumbent steppers 79

upright bikes 78

free weights 75

Comparing Different Treadmills

This sample checklist was designed by the International Council on Active Aging to help you compare different treadmills. In the example shown below, three models are contrasted and rated in terms of how each would meet the needs of older adults in your facility.

The following information describes the vastly different levels of functioning among older adults. Knowing their challenges and abilities will be of great help when assessing what your older clients need in terms of equipment. The ability levels are shown in descending order, from physically dependent to physically elite.

Physically Dependent. These clients cannot execute some or all of the basic activities of daily living (BADL). They need movement that helps maintain or improve physical function for basic self-care (i.e., the strength, range of motion, balance and coordination necessary for feeding, bathing and dressing themselves; going to the toilet; transferring from one position to another [e.g., sitting to standing]; and walking). Concentrate on activities that improve hand strength and agility; arm strength; shoulder and hip range of motion; quadriceps strength (front thigh); strength in the shin muscles; and ankle strength and range of motion.

Physically Frail. This group can perform the BADL, but cannot perform some or all of the activities necessary to live independently; this limitation is generally due to a debilitating disease or condition that physically challenges them on a daily basis. What is needed is exercise that helps maintain or improve the ability to perform the BADLs and the instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). Exercise programming should focus on muscular strength and endurance; joint range of motion; balance and coordination; and postural and gait abnormalities.

Physically Independent. These older adults typically live independently, usually without debilitating symptoms of major chronic diseases, but their health and fitness reserves are low. Programming should focus on muscular strength; endurance and flexibility; joint range of motion; balance; coordination; and cardiovascular endurance.

Physically Fit. This group exercises at least twice a week for health, enjoyment and well-being; health and fitness reserves are high. Programming should focus on muscular strength; endurance; flexibility; joint range of motion; balance; coordination; agility; and cardiovascular endurance.

Physically Elite. These older adults train on an almost daily basis and either compete in seniors’ sport tournaments or work in physically demanding jobs. Programming should include general conditioning in muscular strength, endurance and flexibility; agility; and cardiovascular endurance. Additional programming may be sport- or activity-specific to improve performance in a desired area.

Source: Spirduso, W.W. 1995. Physical Dimensions of Aging. Human Kinetics.

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