No Six-Packs Here, Please
Seniors looking to hit the gym now have options that go beyond battling it out with the hard bodies
Last spring, Marlene Dull, 58, was making plans for a weeklong September cruise to Alaska with her husband, Joe. Huffing and puffing her way around the lido deck was not on the itinerary. But after years of too much food and too little exercise, Dull was seriously overweight, out of shape, and tired all the time. And she wasn't eager to negotiate the hard young bodies and complicated machinery at the big fitness clubs in her area to turn her health around. "I didn't want to spend all that money on a cruise and not have a good time. I had to do something to lose weight," says Dull, a human resources technician for the city of Buena Park, in Southern California. "But I would rather die than go into one of those 24-hour fitness clubs with all those young, beautiful bodies."
Instead, Dull turned to Club 50 Fitness, one of a growing number of niche gyms and fitness programs designed for people in their 50s and beyond. Club 50, a franchise started in 2003, has about 30 clubs across the country. Nifty after Fifty, a small group of appointment-only gyms started in 2006, has roughly 2,000 members and is expected to expand to a dozen clubs by 2008.
Building muscle. Folks 55 and older now make up nearly 25 percent of all health club members, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association. "Having an environment in which people feel comfortable to exercise, as opposed to what some older citizens view as meat markets or dating games, is indeed important," says Sheldon Zinberg, a retired gastroenterologist from La Habra, Calif., who founded Nifty after Fifty.
At Club 50, the workout is based on a "circuit" of easily adjustable hydraulic weight machines that provide a cardiovascular boost as well as strength training. Patrons, who range in age from 42 to 82, are in and out in 30 minutes or so. And there's no loud music, spandex, or singles at the juice bar. (Actually, there is no juice bar.) The workouts range from low to moderate intensity and are geared toward people who may not only be out of shape but also suffering from joint problems or other ailments associated with aging. Counseling on nutrition is also available.
Regular exercise, particularly strength training, is well established as a way to help people maintain better balance and muscle strength as they age. That helps reduce the number of falls and hospitalizations seniors suffer as they become elderly. (At age 40, the average person starts losing muscle strength at a rate of about 1 percent each year.) "Basically, the exercise prescription for older adults is not that much different than it is for younger adults," says Arthur Weltman, director of the exercise physiology program at the University of Virginia and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine's Strategic Health Initiative on Aging.
The expertise of the instructors at gyms designed for the 50-plus set can vary depending on the program, but all are trained in the machinery and how to help older exercisers prevent injury. (Members are advised to check with a doctor before pumping up.) Club 50's instructors, for instance, are trained by the company on the equipment, nutrition, and the basic needs of people with joint problems, balance issues, and lessening muscle strength. Nifty after Fifty, which is accepted by some insurance companies as a provider of physical therapy, employs only instructors with college degrees in exercise gerokinesiology.