Health and fitness ads, branding, and marketing are typically dominated by images of photogenic young people bursting with vitality. That might be the kind of advertising that gets those in a similar age group through the doors and to sign up for memberships. But as important as this demographic is to sustaining the industry, it’s by no means the fastest growing segment. For that, we have to look to the other end of the age scale. There are currently over 40 million Americans who are 65 or older (13 percent of the total population), and if current demographics and life expectancy remain the same, that number is expected to reach 89 million by 2050.
This means that if you’re serious about growing your business and making fitness accessible to all, it’s time to start thinking more about your elderly clients and how you can tailor your coaching craft to meet their unique needs. One of the main challenges facing those of retirement age and above is a lack of daily movement. According to an article written by Ian McMahan for The Atlantic, “Roughly one-third of Americans over the age of 65 are considered physically active, compared to around 80 percent of the general population.” This lack of regular physical activity can have a whole host of negative consequences, including a loss of strength and endurance, muscular atrophy, and a steep decline in mobility.
And yet age-related physical decline is not an inevitability. McMahan references a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons which states that regular exercise can reduce age-related reductions in cardiovascular function by up to 50 percent. Plus, two studies on older cyclists cited in the New York Times show that consistent physical activity can preserve muscular and immune function and keep people biologically “young” at a cellular level. In a previous study by the same British researchers, eager cyclists in their 70s “proved to have reflexes, memories, balance and, metabolic profiles that more closely resembled those of 30-year-olds than of the sedentary older group.”
This means that as a trainer, we can have a big impact on this rapidly expanding population group. One thing to recognize is that certain types of exercise programs are typically not well suited to seniors. “We often need to get older people away from high volume, high-risk movement and guide them towards high quality, low-risk movement,” said Chris Cygul, a TRX Master Trainer and the owner of St. Augustine Fitness, the only TRX Premier Training Facility in Northeast Florida. “This begins with an assumption that there could be some limitations – like a hip replacement or shoulder injury – that we might have to work around, while reassuring the client that you’re going to take good care of them and get them moving without aggravating their pain points.”
Such an approach is in line with TRX’s movement quality-centric method for training people of any age group. Just as with younger clients, you should start by helping older people understand and master TRX Foundational Movements like the lunge, hinge, pull, and squat. From there, you can appropriately build on this solid base by carefully adding volume, intensity, and load. For those members who have the kind of restrictions Cygul mentioned, one of the benefits of Suspension Training is that it enables you to scale exercises. By simply moving closer or further from the "anchor point,” almost any Suspension Training exercise can be modified to meet the needs of any user. Because load/resistance can be modified and/or spread across several joints and muscles groups, greater volume of work can be accomplished, which leads to increases in strength and potentially lean muscle mass. So someone might be unable to do a full Atomic Push-up to begin with, but maybe they could do the first part of the exercise from a kneeling position. Or if they cannot perform a full squat, they might be able to start with a partial one using the straps for support.
Another key component of programming for seniors is to give extra attention to the body parts that are meant to be mobile and those that are supposed to be stable, both on and off the Suspension Trainer, which can contribute to dramatic mobility improvements by increasing range of motion. “Mobility work is incredibly important for seniors, particularly those who’ve been sedentary for a long time,” Cygul said. “The stiffer they get, the less flexibility they have, so you need to address that from the get-go. While you can share some basic mobility exercises, it can be just as useful if not more so to introduce them to yoga or another practice that will improve their mobility and stability. We also tend to do a more extensive set of movement activation exercises and take care with the warm-up portion of each workout.”
The type of session that senior clients engage in is often key, too. Participating in high-tempo group classes at some gyms can seem like a fun challenge at first, but if someone lacks basic movement competency, it can lead to injury. “We get quite a lot of older members coming to us who got hurt doing group fitness classes elsewhere and have become hesitant to get back into exercising,” Cygul said. “Then there are those whose previous trainers haven’t understood how to bridge the gap between post-surgery rehab and training, and so they got hurt. After reassuring them that we do things differently here, we encourage them to get a few one-on-one sessions to build a strong foundation of quality movement.”
A TRX Qualified Coach knows that starting with our Foundational Movements is a great way to get young and old alike moving well and moving often. However, because older individuals may need an extra helping of stability and confidence, starting with more "stand facing" exercises such as Squat Rows, T- and Y-Flys, low-Med-High Rows, Step Back Lunges are effective. Alternating these strength-endurance exercises with some “stand facing away” mobility moves like Wall Slides, Step Forward (lunge regression) with T-Flys or Hip Flexor Stretch, and Snow Angles will prevent grip/forearm fatigue and provide some much needed anterior chain/sling stretching and opening.
For Cygul and his fellow coaches at St. Augustine Fitness, what happens in the gym is only one component of helping elderly members achieve total lifestyle change. As this age group can tend to be less active outside of a training environment, it’s crucial that you urge them to avoid optional sitting and move regularly throughout the day. Mastering basic exercises can be the catalyst that enables someone to regain their vigor. “When an older client improves their movement quality and sticks with a program, this translates into better quality of life, makes it easier for them to travel to see friends and family, and enables them to rediscover activities that they gave up years ago,” Cygul said.
One of his recent success stories is Josie. Cygul began by coaching her individually in the TRX Foundational Movements. Once she’d mastered these, he then scaled her up to advanced variations that challenged her balance and core strength, and began upping the volume and intensity gradually. Now she has more stamina in her group sessions than any of Cygul’s other athletes, and is proving to be an inspiration to people of all different ages.
“I had a 40 year old client come up to me after a group class that Josie was in and say, ‘I want to be able to move that well when I’m in my 70s,’” Cygul said. “Older members can think that they’re looking to younger people for motivation, when in reality they’re the ones setting a great example. We also find that they pass a lot of valuable life lessons on to younger clients and the coaching staff. Plus they’re often the most loyal and reliable members you’ll ever have.” When it comes to moving well and sustainably, it seems that age really can be just a number.
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