Seniors Are Joining Gyms to Put Some Hop in Their Hips

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One morning at the Sport & Health Club in Alexandria, a telling generational tableau unfolded.

A gray-haired gentleman, bent as a tree stick, climbed aboard a treadmill next to a young, lycra-clad woman who was vigorously exercising. Peering down at the controls, he began his workout slowly -- so slowly that the young woman became concerned.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

He was fine, thank you very much, just going at his own pace.

That young woman had better get used to it. With the baby boomers' impact on demography, people older than 55 make up the fastest-growing segment of the fitness industry, and more gyms are adding programming especially for them. In places where hip-hop once blasted as buff bodies hefted weights, a grayer clientele is signing up for yoga and aquatics classes or exercising on recumbent bicycles and elliptical machines designed for older bodies.

"It's a natural trend as this segment of the population ages," said Joe Moore, chief executive of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "We're seeing many [seniors] going to health clubs because of the health benefits and not just the aesthetics of looking better." The association estimates that there were nearly 10 million health club members older than 55 in 2007, up from 2 million in 1990. Nearly a third of the member clubs now have senior programming.

Locally, gyms have added classes such as ballroom dancing in the past two years to attract seniors, and Sport & Health Club offers one called "Fall Proof," a fall-prevention workout.

David von Storch, the owner of hip Vida Fitness, which has opened three luxury fitness clubs in the District in the past three years, kept seniors in mind when designing the facilities, adding workout studios with softer lighting and flooring, and endless pools at each location for joint therapy and recovery.

Although the senior population at his facilities is small (about 4 percent), he is adding extra midday stretching classes at the recently opened Metropole location on 15th Street NW after receiving several requests from members.

"In some of these gentrified neighborhoods such as Logan Circle, there are a lot of empty nesters, and we want to pay attention to that market," von Storch said.

Experts say personal trainers are branching out to work with seniors. That means they must be mindful of not pushing aging bodies too hard and cognizant of such issues as arthritis and back problems, said Janie Clark, president of the American Senior Fitness Association.

And they have to vary the program depending on just how "senior" the client is; the term now covers four decades as life spans have increased. People born in the 1930s may never have belonged to a gym and feel intimidated about joining. Baby boomers, on the other hand, came of age during the fitness revolution of the 1970s and 1980s -- from the jogging craze to Jane Fonda workout tapes and beyond. Some are still hyper-fit, playing aggressive squash or running half-marathons, and may find senior classes not challenging enough.

Town Sports International, an East Coast chain of gyms, recently expanded a program called SilverSneakers to 37 of its locations, including four of its Washington Sports Clubs in this area. SilverSneakers was created by the for-profit company Healthways Inc., which partners with Medicare and large-group retiree health plans to offer free health club memberships to people 65 and older. More than 900,000 seniors participate across the country.

Healthways says that the program cuts health-care costs, citing a study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that, after participating for two years, SilverSneakers members had fewer hospital admissions and lower health-care bills than comparable seniors in a control group. In recent years, Healthways has begun to add features that might attract younger, more active seniors, such as weight training classes and online tracking tools for workouts.

On a recent quiet morning at the Washington Sports Club in Georgetown, about a dozen seniors worked with exercise balls, light weights and exercise bands with fitness instructor Gabriel Portugal as peppy music played softly in the background.

Exercise, Portugal said, "is vital for that population. If you're not stimulating your muscles, you will lose them, . . . and, next thing you know, you will hurt yourself picking up a grocery bag or your grandchildren."

Lana Pipes, 66, a retired writer-editor, had never set foot in a gym when she signed up for the SilverSneakers class in January. She said she never felt intimidated by gyms; it was something that never appealed to her. She lives in Georgetown and long ago gave up her car; her exercise routine previously consisted of walking about two miles a day.

Then she got a couple fliers touting the free membership and decided to give it a try. She has noticed an improvement in her balance from the stretching exercise and use of light weights in just a few short months, she said.

"I'm using muscles I've never used before," she said.


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