Fitness After 50: The Gym Goes Gray

Baby boomers are flocking to fitness centers in record numbers

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

They may not be hanging Beatles posters on the walls, or piping in the soundtrack from Yellow Submarine. Still, more and more fitness centers are doing everything they can to attract the baby boom generation -- and it's working, with folks over 50 making up the fastest-growing segment of the fitness population.

"For about the past 15 years, the baby boom fitness market has been slowly growing," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. "But in the last several years it has really exploded, and it's exploded in many segments, including health club memberships." According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, older adults are hitting gyms and health clubs at a record rate. The group says the number of health club members over 55 grew by 343% from 1987 to 2003, while the number of members in the 35-54 age group increased by 180%.

Milner says that by 2012, "those numbers will increase even more dramatically. This is a market that is only going to grow more and more as time goes on."

What's driving the change? Trend-watchers say the generation that once believed "never trust anyone over 30" is now well over 50 but still determined not to grow old.

"I think we could roll up the whole reasoning into just one phrase -- quality of life -- because the feedback we get is that people simply want to be active in their later years, and they now realize that being fit is one of the only ways to do that," says Dean Witherspoon, president of Health Enhancement Systems, which creates health programs for corporations and other organizations.

Milner agrees: "A lot of the problems we used to think of as being related to aging, we now know aren't related to aging at all. They are related to disuse of the body, and boomers have finally begun to realize 'Hey, we can do something about that.'"

Indeed, studies continue to show that we can. For example, research recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that inactivity doubles the risk of mobility limitations as we age, while vigorous activity has the opposite effect. In another study, published in the journal Neurology, doctors found that exercise can slow cognitive declines -- meaning our minds can stay sharper longer.

"No matter what area you look to, be it heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, research shows that being physically fit into your senior years will keep you healthier and active longer," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.

And baby boomers are not about to let that opportunity slip by, experts say.

"Unlike our grandparents, who simply hoped they could hang around long enough to collect Social Security, our generation has every expectation that at 60 we're going to be doing the same things we did at 45 -- and it's a very good possibility that we will," says Witherspoon.

Redefining Fitness, Boomer-Style

While the idea of midlife fitness may have been sneaking into our collective consciousness for some time, experts say the real difference came when health clubs themselves began to change.

Leading the pack: a Harlington, Texas, company with a chain of health clubs known as Curves. It started in 1995 as one location offering a circuit-training program aimed at women over 45, and in just 36 months it grew to 1,000 locations. Today there are some 9,000 Curves gyms worldwide.

But what was different about this club? Some believe it simply made fitness easier for the overworked, overstressed Boomer to achieve.

"It put the health club into the neighborhood, and created a fast, time-saving, 30-minute workout a woman could easily fit into her day," says Milner.

It also did something else. Experts say it created a more attainable model for success.

"Essentially, it did away with the 'perfect body' dream, and replaced it with the much more realistic 'better lifestyle and better health' dream -- and it worked," says Milner.

It also helped spawn an entire industry. In addition to the 8,000 Curves locations around the United States, similar organizations such as Slim and Tone for women and now Cuts -- a kind of Curves for men -- are taking off.

What's more, even gyms and health clubs that have traditionally courted the hard-body set are looking to catch some backsplash from the Baby Boomer fitness wave. Bally Total Fitness is launching an ad campaign aimed at Boomers, according to news reports, while the Southern California chain of Gold's Gyms plans to begin featuring 50-somethings in its ads.

50-and-Up Fitness: What You Must Know



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