Workout: Try a Kinder, Gentler Workout (cont.)

The ASD's latest survey of 15,000 adults shows that at a time when gym membership in the 55-plus crowd has ballooned -- especially among women -- joint-jarring activities like aerobics and kickboxing are giving way to gentler pursuits such as:

  • Pilates. Originally designed to give dancers muscle strength without bulk, Pilates was largely ignored by the general public for almost a century. Only two years ago, fewer than 10% of gyms offered classes in mat Pilates, a blend of stretching and calisthenics designed to enhance alignment, increase flexibility, and firm abdominal and back muscles. Now 40% do.
  • Yoga. Americans first turned to the 5,000-year-old stretching and relaxation technique in the 1960s, looking for a way to get high without drugs. Now, the yoga/tai chi category boasts 11.1 million followers, almost double the 5.7 million in 1998.
  • Elliptical trainers. More than 10 million Americans use elliptical trainers, a knee-friendly cross between a stair climber and a cross-country-ski machine. That's a surge of 177% over the 1998 level of 3.9 million -- and a sign that elliptical trainers have passed the litmus test of health club acceptance, Lauer says.
  • Recumbent bikes. More than 10 million Americans now recline while they pedal, an increase of about 50% since 1998. Not only are these machines more comfy than ordinary exercise bikes, they take stress off achy lower backs, Lauer says.

Aging Boomers Drive Exercise Trend

The aging of the exercising population has driven the switch to low-impact activities, says Richard Cotton, a San Diego, Calif.-based exercise physiologist who is a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.

People 55 and older are the fastest-growing population in the nation's health clubs, up by 380% since 1987, according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). About 1 in 4 health club members is at least 55, up from only 9% in 1987.

As the country's 77 million baby boomers have begun aging, "there is a trend toward activities that are moderate in intensity and not so pounding on the body," Cotton says. "Comfort and lower injury risk are the two big draws."

Social acceptance plays a role too, Lauer says. "Forty years ago, it was unseemly for women to grow muscles. Now it's OK, even a source of sexual attraction. And the same is now true for older people."

While aging boomers are fueling the exercise trend toward kinder, gentler workouts, experts say that anyone who wants to stay fit -- particularly beginning exercisers -- should consider incorporating low-intensity activities into their routine.

"Because older adults are more prone to musculoskeletal injury, low-impact exercises are ideal for them," Cotton says. "But all men and women can benefit."

Studies show that low-intensity activities provide all the health benefits one needs, he says. "You don't have to train for the Olympics to optimize your health. Just modest activity lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and maintains muscle mass."

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