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

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."

"The ideal routine combines the strength, flexibility, and balance training of yoga and Pilates with an aerobic activity such as brisk walking."

These same studies, he says, show that people are more likely to stick with a less grueling routine over the long haul.

Finding a Balance

A word of caution: By itself, any one of these low-impact exercises is not enough to stay fit, the experts warn.

The ideal routine combines the strength, flexibility, and balance training of yoga and Pilates with an aerobic activity such as brisk walking, Cooper says. "Or try recumbent cycling: You can push real hard and get your heart going," but there is less impact, and thus lower risk of injury, than with a treadmill or jogging.

So, how can you incorporate these gentler, kinder exercises into your routine?

If you don't already belong to a gym, start by calling health clubs in your area and requesting specific information about the equipment and classes they offer, advises Jamy McGee, fitness director at the Wellness Center at Meadowmont, part of the University of North Carolina Healthcare System in Chapel Hill.

If a club seems to meet your needs, pay a visit, she says: "Take a walk through the place, look around. Are there enough elliptical trainers and recumbent bicycles to meet the needs of members during peak times?