What do you think of when you hear “senior fitness”? For some personal trainers, the term might conjure images of gentle exercises performed in a noncompetitive environment.
However, older adult fitness levels and abilities vary just like their younger counterparts.
Definition of an Older-Adult Athlete or Fitness Enthusiast
Pinning down a universal definition is difficult because aging affects each person differently, says Cody Sipe, PhD, associate professor and director of clinical research in the physical therapy program at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
Chronological age has little to do with training, says Jan Schroeder, PhD, professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach. “It really is biological age that determines modifications in training methods,” she says.
“We need to be very careful not to lump the older-adult population all together and assume that they are all the same, because the reality is that older adults are much more diverse than younger adults,” says Sipe.
Perception and Purpose
Clients’ perception of how they fit or don’t fit into the “senior fitness” category is another consideration.
Colin Milner of Vancouver, British Columbia, is the founder and chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging® (ICAA), a leading authority on the health and well-being of older adults. “Most of us have a habit of overestimating our abilities,” he says.
Personal trainers who can pick up on these key perceptions and sell their services appropriately—by promoting injury prevention without pushing “senior fitness” stereotypes and assumptions—will have the most success at attracting a fit older market.
The better approach, according to Milner, is to provide purposeful exercise that meets the perceptions and expectations of older athletes who are already fitness enthusiasts.
Avoid assuming what an older client can and cannot do based on age alone, says Sipe. “It is the level of fitness that is of prime importance, rather than age.”
“However,” he adds, “with age comes increased health risk and incidence of disease conditions.”
Personal trainers can teach older adults the same things as younger adults, says Schroeder, but “the way that you teach them may be different.” She advises personal trainers to look at each older client individually to determine if special considerations are in order.
Training Fit Older Clients: The Big Picture
“Many older adults can certainly train with the same intensity as their younger counterparts,” says Milner. “They just need the right guidance and awareness of any limitations that may challenge this.”
Functional training. Sipe recommends avoiding functional seated isolation resistance exercises and instead recommends focusing on functional exercises.
Communication. Avoid giving too many corrections at once when teaching a new skill or refining a technique. Milner also advises considering how you communicate with older clients, because comprehension, hearing and vision can change with age.
High impact. Consider whether your client needs high impact—for example, does the benefit or training purpose outweigh the risk?
Recovery from exercise. You might need to provide extra recovery time between intense training sessions. “The ‘older’ body takes a little longer to repair and recuperate,” Schroeder explains.
Power training. “Power exercises are great for older adults because of the close relationship between muscle power and physical function,” says Sipe, who recommends resistance exercises performed at a higher velocity (power = force x velocity) rather than traditional power-lifting exercises, such as jerks and snatches.
Personalized Programming for Older Adults
“Personal trainers have an incredible opportunity with the older-adult market,” says Milner. “However, the diversity of needs and abilities, from the physical to the cognitive, requires more personalized programs, beyond a cookie-cutter approach.” Knowing and applying the correct training protocol for your fit older clients will help you plan sessions that are appealing, challenging and safe for each one’s goals and abilities.
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