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Older-Adult Fitness: Gauging the Limits of Your Fit Clients

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.

Yet many older athletic adults are not interested in mild “senior” movement, and plenty of them can—and want to—work out pretty intensely or for long durations.

Compared to working with younger clients, are there special considerations for training older clients who clearly belong in a “fit” or “athletic” category? Should programming and training protocols be different for older adults who demonstrate a high level of fitness?

If you currently train or will potentially train fit older adults—those who don’t seem the least bit “elderly”—this article is for you.

Definition of an Older-Adult Athlete or Fitness Enthusiast

What is 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. Biological age means how your body performs and functions compared with the bodies of others your age; chronological age is how many years you’ve been alive.

While the minimum age for participation in the National Senior Games Association® is 50, there are, of course, very fit 50-year-olds and very unfit ones in the general population. And the differences between someone who is 50 and someone who is 90 can be quite vast.

“There is a huge amount of variation between older individuals,” says Sipe. “So much so, in fact, that chronological age becomes a rather poor indicator of fitness or function. 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.”

Perception and Purpose

Clients’ perception of how they fit or don’t fit into the “senior fitness” category is another consideration.

“Most adults view themselves as being 10 or more years younger than their chronological age,” says Sipe. For example, “many in their 70s still view themselves as middle-aged, and the rising Boomers (who started turning 65 in 2010) will continue this trend. But they also realize that they are not as young as they once were and need to train differently than younger individuals.”

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. “The media and marketers certainly do not help with the whole ‘60 is the new 40’ bit. For proof of this, look no further than [doctors’] waiting rooms, which are filled with weekend warriors and their sports-related injuries.”

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.

“‘Senior fitness’ is dead,” asserts Sipe. “Mainly because more and more older adults do not identify with the label of senior.”

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. “Establish [a client’s] purpose in life, then help the client meet this, based on his or her functional abilities,” he says.

For elite athletes or fit older clients, this might involve competition or active vacations. “They may wish to train so they can compete in a sporting event or to walk the Cinque Terre in Italy with their family or hike the Great Wall of China. All require a high level of fitness and appropriate training,” says Milner.

Whatever the fitness or athletic pursuit, personal trainers must analyze which special considerations, if any, apply when training a fit older client.

Special Considerations

If a fit client comes to train with you, how much consideration must you give to his or her chronological age? Or does the client’s fitness level matter more?

“When we train an older adult, whether it’s an athlete or an individual just starting an exercise program after a lifetime of sedentary behavior, we need to look at the person’s abilities, functional and cognitive, to determine how best to meet the client’s needs,” Schroeder says.

Avoid assuming what an older client can and cannot do based on age alone. Says Sipe, “There are plenty of examples of fit older individuals participating in the exact same activities, training regimens and sports as their much-younger counterparts. 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. Therefore, if an older individual is fit but has developed certain health conditions (e.g., arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, etc.), then yes, changes would need to be made. However, the same would be true for a younger individual who had the same 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. “Everyone ages at different rates, so to say, ‘My client is 65 years old, and therefore, I need to modify programming’ is incorrect. We need to look at the person’s biological or functional status to determine if there is a need for modification.”

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.” While each training situation requires its own set of potential modifications, our experts offer a few suggestions to help trainers who are working with fit older clients:

Functional training. When selecting training protocols for fit older clients, taking a functional perspective tops the list for Sipe. He recommends steering fit older clients toward functional exercises and away from seated isolation resistance exercises and other activities that are less effective at improving functionality.

“Due to the aging process, older adults have different needs than younger adults, which should drive the training choices made by the trainer,” says Sipe. “It is very unlikely that a younger person is going to lose the ability to function over the next couple of years, but this is a very real possibility for an older adult. Losing function means loss of independence, increased health problems, poorer quality of life and increased risk of dying early.”

Communication. Avoid giving too many corrections at once when teaching a new skill or refining a technique. “The older adult has a more challenging time focusing on multiple tasks at once,” says Schroeder. 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? “Typically,” says Sipe, “high-impact methods are avoided due to existing cartilage degeneration or damage that accompanies advanced age, but some individuals can do [high-impact exercise] without any problems.”

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. Recovery time depends on the client and the intensity of the training session.

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. “For example,” he explains, “when performing a chair-stand, the client could rise explosively (i.e., as quickly as possible), then sit down slowly. Fast stair climbing also trains the muscles for power.” (Trainers should receive proper training before employing power-training methods with weight equipment, notes Sipe.)

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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