Join the Senior Surge in Physical Fitness

Seniors are demanding better facilities and programs from retirement communities and neighborhood gyms.

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Seniors are sweating a lot of things these days, but in at least one case, this is a good thing. People in their 60s and 70s are demanding much higher levels of physical fitness facilities and programs. At neighborhood gyms and retirement communities across the country, a pronounced fitness and wellness trend is making itself felt. The physical and mental benefits of vigorous exercise have become increasingly clear in recent years. So has the linkage with fitness and diet. Lastly, the social benefits of fitness and wellness classes are being recognized as a powerful benefit as well as a marketing tool to get seniors into pools and onto treadmills, bikes, and cross trainers.

[See 15 Tasks to Become Retirement Ready.] "The expectations of our customers are much higher, and they are much better informed," says Deborah Blake, director of creative content for Del Webb retirement communities, which caters to people aged 55 and older (the average age of residents is 62). Del Webb opened what it bills as the nation's first true retirement community 50 years ago -- Sun City in Phoenix, Ariz. Today, people can buy homes in 57 Del Webb communities. Webb provides many centralized services, including recreation and fitness.

"The focal point of the community is the lifestyle, but a key part of the program today is the fitness facility," Blake says. Images of people lounging around a swimming pool have long ceased to be accurate. "The kidney shaped pool is not going to get it done anymore," she notes. "Our pools need to have swimming lanes, and often have walking tracks that go against the flow of the water so we can help people rehabilitate from knee injuries" and other problems.

The physical dimensions of fitness centers are getting bigger and so are the offerings. "Free weights are becoming a bigger need," Blake says. "And while we always have had fitness assistance, we're now providing personal training." Yoga, meditation, wellness, and nutritional courses have expanded.

"We are definitely taking it up a notch," she says. Residents are "increasingly informed on what is available out there and on how to get the most out of the fitness program." Not surprisingly, Blake adds, she is seeing much longer life spans among community residents, who want to be physically and mentally active as long as they can. "They're focused on their mind and body reaching the finish line at the same time."

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In retirement communities that serve older residents, similar trends have emerged. In addition to meeting residents' needs, many communities also are trying to expand revenues by opening their facilities to people in nearby towns and cities. So they're putting in more equipment and more diverse fitness programs. While step aerobics may still be a popular offering for people in their mid-80s, retirement community pools also are seeing more lap lanes and places where people can engage in more vigorous workouts.

The recently opened Agawam Senior Center in Massachusetts illustrates the expanded role of fitness and wellness programs in a new facility. “This is a place for seniors who are well and active and we constructed the fitness area to meet those needs,” says project manager John Darigan from Barr, Inc, the general contractors for the project. “We talked to seniors and we knew that when we constructed the fitness space, it had to be a lot more than a just gym. We needed it to adapt to everything from Tai Chi to ballroom dancing, line dancing or yoga.”

Margaret Wylde is president and CEO of ProMatura Group, an Oxford, Miss. research firm that has done extensive work with senior communities. While many communities are moving to expand their fitness facilities and programs, she notes, it's also true that many are not. Increasingly, fitness and wellness programs are becoming a major variable in distinguishing communities. "Some communities have what we have come to call a 'poor hotel' fitness center," she says. "There are three or four pieces of fitness equipment in a small room. There's still a lot of that out there."

Communities with sub-standard facilities face a tough task in attracting younger retirement community residents, Wylde says. And it's this group -- healthy and fit people in their 70s -- that many communities have identified as essential to their futures. In studies of attractive potential retirement community residents in local markets, she says, "I was surprised at the proportion of households that said they were currently a member of a gym."

"We've not really increased market share with our [retirement community] product," Wylde adds. Meanwhile, people are staying in their homes longer and staying healthier. "So, they're older when they move into a retirement community." High-end communities featuring lifetime care and lots of amenities draw new residents who are, on average, 80 12, she says. Communities that provide a narrower range of independent or assisted living services draw new residents who average 84 years of age.

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