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The Fiftysomething Workout: What Your Gym Can Do for You Now

New programs tailored to people over 50 could get you back in shape

By Matthew Solan | October 26, 2012

If you stopped going to a gym a while back, you may have had a good reason: Maybe the "boot camps" and other classes didn't meet your needs. Maybe the early-morning timing of spin or yoga sessions no longer fit your schedule. Maybe the blaring house music, with a backbeat of young bodybuilders clanging metal weights, took all the fun out of visiting. Or maybe rising monthly fees convinced you that membership wasn't worth the trouble.

But you do need to stay in shape, for a host of reasons including new evidence that people who get fit in middle age can better avoid chronic conditions in later years.

It could be time to give the gym another chance.

Fitness centers are recognizing that fiftysomethings can be valuable (and profitable) customers and are refashioning their programs to appeal to your needs. People 55 and over are now the fastest-growing membership segment for the health club industry. In 2010, 10.4 million Americans 55 or over had gym memberships, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). In 2011, that number rose 5.1 percent, to about 11 million. The group also reports that more than 30 percent of its member clubs offer programs tailored to older clients.

(MORE: What Is Correct Exercise?)

"Boomers have more options and more choices than ever before," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), which offers an online directory of health clubs that cater to 50-plus fitness seekers.
 
To appeal to fiftysomething clients, many gyms offer yoga, spinning or Pilates classes tweaked to lower the intensity. By offering chairs and other props, classes are being made more accessible to people with physical limitations. There are even Zumba classes which move at a slower pace, so everyone can get in on the Colombian-inspired fitness craze that blends hip-hop, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts, and belly dancing.

Several Ways to Save

Major-chain fitness centers, like so many other businesses, offer discounts to boomers. Across the country, the average cost of a monthly gym membership is about $55. Bally Fitness offers discounts to clients 62 and older at most sites; other clubs' offers tend to vary from region to region (sign-up fees may be negotiable too). "Ask what they offer," Milner says, "and if they don’t offer a discount, try to negotiate one." Keep in mind that "senior" discounts may begin at age 55, and remember: The clubs want your business and it's on them to make an effort to work with you.

You may also be eligible for a discount through your insurance company, as many policies now offer a reduced rate, a discount on premiums, or a direct rebate for joining certain clubs. For instance, many Oxford Health Plans participants are entitled to up to 30 percent off monthly dues at Bally's Total Fitness, Gold's Gym and Curves. Through the discounter GlobalFit.com, Aetna offers similar deals that can shave more than 40 percent off monthly fees at many clubs.

Another way to save: Sign up for a membership in January when many clubs offer deep discounts to attract people acting on New Year's resolutions.

Clubs Designed With You in Mind

There's a growing number of centers solely dedicated to older clients, including Nifty After Fifty, a six-year-old chain with 26 locations in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, and Curves, whose 9,000 locations in 35 countries serve women over 45. These gyms create a different, more welcoming atmosphere for boomers. Instead of pulsing pop music, Nifty After Fifty pumps in tunes from the 50s and 60s. Curves clubs have a streamlined look with bright lights and a soft purple-and-gray color scheme. "These groups are not interested in darker, louder, meat-market type of gyms," says Katie Mitchell, Curves' director of exercise and research.

Gyms designed for fiftysomethings have specialized equipment as well. Weight-and-pulley machines are not ideal for boomers, says Nifty After Fifty founder Dr. Sheldon Zinberg, because they can put too much stress on joints. Instead, both Nifty and Curves use pneumatic resistance equipment, which does not rely on weight stacks. The gyms also have fewer treadmills and more step machines and elliptical trainers, to further reduce the risks of injury.

(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: The Stairway to Fitness)

These clubs also provide a resource many other gyms have been slow to embrace – personal trainers specially trained to work with older clients. Trainers have traditionally been taught how to keep people motivated and help them reach specific goals, like losing 10 pounds in three months, or getting in shape for a road race. But fiftysomethings demand more specialized workouts. "You have specific health needs or limitations, or have to deal with chronic conditions that require more expert guidance," Milner says. "Physical trainers are now getting more training to work with boomers and their individual needs."
 
You can expect trainers at fiftysomething-focused gyms to work with you to design personalized workouts, starting with a thorough assessment of your baseline fitness level. Nifty After Fifty, for example, employs computerized analysis of strength and balance test results along with measurements of lean muscle mass and body fat. The data, along with information about any challenges like knee or back pain, are used to customize a workout. At Nifty and Curves, trainers roam the workout floor at all times to offer assistance and advice.

The cost of personal training sessions can range widely, but averages about $50 per hour nationwide, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Personal training sessions are almost always cheaper per hour when you buy them in bunches, and some clubs may have membership levels that include some training sessions, which tends to be more affordable than ordering sessions a la carte.

New Options for Older Athletes

For fitness seekers 65 or older, the SilverSneakers lineup of HMO-supported wellness classes are available at more than 9,000 fitness centers nationwide. The programs are generally free for people who belong to a sponsoring HMO. They typically include strength and range of motion classes; circuit workouts combining cardio and upper-body work; low-impact cardio workouts; yoga and stretch groups; and water aerobics. "Gyms embrace SilverSneakers because it does all the marketing and promotion,” Milner says. The downside, for people who work fulltime, is that the classes tend to be scheduled in the early afternoon during gym downtimes. SilverSneaker classes may also not be intense enough for some.

(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet: Workout Foods to Fuel Your Boomer Body)

Before she joined the Jewish Community Center gym in Foster City, Calif., in 2011, Corie Kotansky, 67, had never belonged to a fitness center. She was seeking workouts with more vigor than the yoga classes she had been attending. She signed up for a Zumba "Gold" class — a dialed down version of Zumba — and caught on so well that she soon moved up to a regular Zumba group. “Once I got the steps down, I wanted to push myself to a different level,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t out of place, either. You may be intimidated by young people with young bodies at first, but you soon realize that people are focused only on themselves and not you.” 

Now, Kotansky says, “Some days I think I live at the gym."