How to Attract Deconditioned and Aging Populations

By IDEA Authors
Feb 1, 2000

“My goal this year really is to focus on teaching classes that attract deconditioned and aging populations. However, I am stuck on what to call such classes—how to strike that tricky balance between identifying my market and not alienating anyone. How much do deconditioned and 50-plus exercisers want to be separated and labeled? Also, how different should the exercise content be from the content of mainstream beginning and intermediate classes?”

Connie Bennett, Tecate, Mexico

First of all, quite a distinction needs to be made between the deconditioned and the aged. On any given day I can be leading a hike on Mount Kuchumaa (a mountain near Rancho La Puerta spa) with a 70-year-old woman who is physically fit and can outpace a sedentary 30-year-old. The next hour I might work with a 60-year-old deconditioned woman who can barely walk to the dining room. These three women obviously have very different training needs.

Having said that, my experience tells me that, yes, deconditioned exercisers do want a class with a label particular to their needs. At the same time these people do not want to feel singled out because they attend this class.

So a class name has to be catchy yet still sound basic; it needs to accent the workout’s positive outcomes instead of the ways it differs from a mainstream class. For example, Rancho La Puerta offered a “Slow Mountain Hike” for deconditioned guests who needed (or preferred) to move at a slow pace with frequent stops. No more than two or three people ever showed up even though we had dozens of weekly guests for whom the slow, intermittent pace was appropriate. The need was there, yet attendance remained poor. We finally recognized that the term “slow” seemed to place a negative judgment on the climbing abilities of the hikers rather than simply describing the pace of the hike itself. When we changed the name to “Scenic Mountain Hike,” the meeting spot became “standing room only” and the hike was packed with slow-going, happily moving people.

What does this tell me? Aim for a class name that describes the process, benefits or goals of the activity rather than a label that defines the exercisers or their fitness level.

Michele Chovan-Taylor, Las Vegas

As a coordinator for a club near a huge retirement community, I don’t wish to alienate any older adult by suggesting that there’s only one kind of “senior exerciser.” Many of our fit members in their 60s and even 70s who have worked out in mainstream classes for years would never entertain the idea of attending a “senior” workout. Other older adults, however, may have lived a sedentary life for decades. These people are not necessarily working out to look better. For them, exercise may be a social event and a means toward continued independence. They would be overwhelmed in a mainstream group exercise class. They definitely want their classes to be “senior exclusive.” As one perfectly coiffed 65-year-old put it, “We have earned the right to our own classes.” Silver SneakersTM is one program that has succeeded in meeting the needs of these less “exercise-experienced” seniors.

As for deconditioned exercisers, young and old (however you or they define these terms) have a lot in common. Both groups value social interaction—so much so that my instructors who teach classes for these populations must take time afterward to mingle, talk about class and get feedback. Knowing someone cares about their progress motivates these participants to return.

At present, our club addresses fit and deconditioned senior exercisers within one format. The class is called “Forever Fit.” The names we are toying with for the future include “Senior Fit,” “Fit Origins” and “Fitness Fundamentals.” So I would say, look at what motivates older and deconditioned participants to exercise and create titles from there.

Junko Sakiyama, Tokyo

I suggest a class name like “Forever Young.” Such a title does not directly stipulate deconditioned or aging people but still implies the level. One possibility for creating a class title is to brainstorm the outcome or purpose of the class and derive a title from that process. For example, an exercise class for older adults might have the outcome of supporting or prolonging an active life. That phrase can generate an idea for a title: “Active Life Workout.”

As we know, fitness levels vary widely, regardless of whether exercisers are under or over 50 years old. The distinctions you really need to make are between low and high intensity and between low and high complexity. Ultimately, I believe that if you explain your goals and make sure your program always adheres to those goals, you will draw suitable participants. The content is much more critical than the name. What’s important is to decide which fitness level you are aiming for and stay consistent with that. Word of mouth may be more powerful than titles or descriptions.

Peggy Buchanan, Santa Barbara, California

My first suggestion is to decide whether you are catering to geriatric jocks or grandma and grandpa. Second, you must think outside the traditional box. For instance, the word aerobics means little to the deconditioned senior, so avoid using our industry terms when marketing to this audience. Seniors respond more to the promise of endurance, balance and strength. And grapevines don’t always cut it! Do functional moves that still give participants the essence of dance. Also, offer a start and end date for the classes rather than making them an ongoing proposition. Many seniors are on fixed incomes and hesitate to commit themselves to a seemingly infinite amount of time and expense. But they have told me, “If I live through class, I will sign up for the next session.”

My third suggestion is to market benefits, not features, and do so with playfulness and humor. Forget lures like “Thin Thighs in 30 Days.” Instead tell them “Your Legs Will Work in All Ways.” I have generated interest and participation with titles that give information and distinguish the class from the young crowd’s workouts, yet hint at fun. We have one class called “BYOB—Build Your Own Bones.” Another is our TGIF session— “Thank Goodness I’m Flexible.” And we also offer “A No-Falls Approach to Balance.” Believe me, the people 45 and younger aren’t likely to beat the doors down, while the people you’re wanting to interest will come for the benefits, even though you haven’t used the “senior” label.

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