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By Tammy Petersen, MSE 


Twenty five percent (25%) of the nation's 41.3 million health club members are already over age 55, the quintessential statistic that -- according to American Sports Data, Inc. (ASD) president Harvey Lauer -- "represents not only a vast change in American attitudes and perceptions, but also an imminent restructuring of the health club and fitness industries, and most crucially -- the seed of monumental healthcare reform in the United States."

From 1998 - 2004, the number of frequent fitness participants aged 55+ zoomed by 33%, along with a growth rate of 13% for Baby Boomers aged 35-54, compared to zero growth for the "traditional" fitness participant aged 18-34.  These were among the findings of the 18th annual SUPERSTUDY® of Sports Participation, conducted among 14,684 Americans nationwide in January 2005 by ASD. It was also reported that people aged 55+ represent 25% of the 6.1 million Americans who paid for the services of a personal trainer in 2004.

The aging of the American population has created a large group of older adults who are even more susceptible to the detrimental effects of physical inactivity than are younger people. This is not news to the fitness industry; however, many personal trainers are not adequately prepared to deal with this growing segment of the population.

Let's look at a few more statistics:

  • Americans over age 55 are the fastest-growing age group among gym members, up more than 266 percent since 1987 -- more than twice the rate for U.S. health club members as a whole.
  • In the year 2000, roughly 35 million people (13% of the population) were age 65 or older. By 2030, that number is expected to double to 70 million. According to the Active Aging Partnership National Blueprint, 88% of these people have at least one chronic health condition that in many cases could be improved or managed with physical activity.
  • Frequent health club attendance (100 days) has soared to a new high of 13.5 million. While they already account for 25% of the total memberships, people over 55 represent 28% of all frequent attendees.
  • According to IDEA Health and Fitness Association's research, 51 percent of all personal training clientele are over the age of 45. This would stand to reason as this group has more than 50 percent of the discretionary income, and they spend more of their income on health than any other item, according to the World Health Organization.

Consider this--once adults pass the physical prime of their teens and 20's, they lose an average of 10 ounces of lean body mass a year, and this is mostly in the form of muscle tissue. And since few people actually lose 10 ounces of weight a year, instead, most gain about a pound a year, the loss of lean tissue is masked. Another way to look at this is the average person gains about 1 pound and 10 ounces of body fat per year. It is a process that is more insidious and crippling than osteoporosis but one few people notice until they realize it is getting difficult to climb the stairs or heft themselves off the sofa. Unchecked, the gradual loss of muscle strength is the main reason older Americans have difficulty performing the tasks of daily living and ultimately lose their independence. This phenomenon, which we call sarcopenia, is derived from Greek words for "vanishing flesh." This is NOT an inevitable consequence of aging. It is instead an inevitable consequence of disuse.

Another important reason for older people to strength train is that evidence suggests that exercise may decrease the rate of bone loss associated with osteoporosis and reduce the likelihood of falls that result in hip fractures. A frightening statistic is that almost 24% of people over age 50 who have hip fractures die within a year. Falling is a serious public health concern among elderly people because of its frequency, the morbidity associated with falls, and the cost of the necessary healthcare. According to Dr. Mary Tinetti, Yale University, approximately 30% of the people who live in the community fall each year. Unintentional injury, which most often results from a fall, ranks as the sixth leading cause of death among people over 65 years of age. Muscle weakness has been identified as one of the biggest potentially modifiable risk factors for falling. In the late 80’s, early 90’s, studies began being done which proved that despite a decrease in muscle fibers and strength, muscle function can be maintained and or improved with training, even in the very old. 

A slight increase in muscle strength at any age can improve quality of life-and stave off the frailty that used to be considered a normal part of getting old. While strength training is not the only type of exercise that is important for older adults, it should be easy to understand that the frailer a person becomes, the greater the importance of strength training. And sometimes, strength training and flexibility are the only types of exercise in which the older adult can engage until they gain enough muscle strength to allow them to work on their endurance or aerobic capacity, and balance. According to Wayne Westcott, PhD, twelve health and fitness benefits result from strength training by older adults. They are: avoid muscle loss, avoid metabolic rate reduction, increase muscle mass, increase metabolic rate, reduce body fat, increase bone mineral density, increase glucose metabolism, increase gastrointestinal transit, reduce resting blood pressure, improve blood lipids levels, reduce low back pain, and reduce arthritic pain.

Although the benefits of strength training have been discussed exclusively to this point, older inactive adults also loose ground in three other areas that are important for staying healthy and independent, these are endurance, balance and flexibility. Endurance training can maintain and improve cardiovascular function and can reduce risk factors associated with chronic diseases associated with aging such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others and reduce overall death and hospital rates. Balance exercises help to prevent falls and flexibility exercises help to keep the body limber by stretching muscles and tissues that hold the body’s structure in place. Flexibility may also play a part in preventing falls.

Some types of exercise improve just one area of health or ability, but more often, an exercise has many different benefits. So, older adults should be encouraged to increase both the types and amounts of exercise and physical activity they do. According to an article in the winter 2002 newsletter, Aging Successfully, published by the St Louis School of Medicine and Geriatric Research, for the older adult, the goals of exercise should be to minimize the effects of aging and chronic diseases; to reverse the effects of disuse; and to maximize psychological health. This is different than those of younger adults for whom exercise helps prevent disease and increase life expectancy. 

Contrary to traditional thinking, regular exercise helps, not hurts, older adults. Older people become sick or disabled more often from not exercising than from exercising. Almost all older adults, regardless of age or condition, can safely improve their health and independence through exercise and physical activity. There are few reasons to keep them from exercising, and "too old" and "too frail" are not among them!! 

So, now that you have learned what a huge market older adults already comprise, and that this market will continue to increase dramatically for years to come, are you interested in training this market? If you answered "yes", then you must consider what it takes to be qualified to work with this population. Assuming that you already have a solid knowledge base in personal training, it is truly mandatory to build on that existing knowledge and skill to safely and effectively work with the ever-growing senior population.

More specifically you should be able to:

  1. Appreciate how the aging process impacts the organ systems, as well as understand the risk factors associated with chronic diseases.

  2. Identify dietary changes that may be needed as a result of aging, and also recognize how diet is related to the different chronic diseases that become more apparent as people grow older.

  3. Utilize safe and effective training techniques for the older adult, including knowledge of guidelines specific to older adult flexibility, endurance and strength training.

  4. Conduct comprehensive senior health assessment and fitness testing.

  5. Understand chronic diseases and be able to design and modify programs for clients with specific chronic diseases.

  6. Identify with what motivates the older adult and understand how to create an age friendly environment.

  7. Find and appeal to senior clients, and identify ways to build your credibility and establish yourself as an expert in the field of senior fitness.

In addition to making sure you possess the skill to safely and effectively work with older adults, it also a good idea to understand what qualities and skill level that the older adult will be expecting to find in you when they are considering you as their personal trainer. The International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) has developed a very informative guide for older adults to help them find a qualified personal trainer. You should review use this guide for your own education, and keep copies handy to give to prospective clients. This will show them that you are aware of what it takes to be an "age friendly" personal trainer!  The ICAA guide "How to select an age-friendly personal fitness trainer" is provided here for your review. You will find the guide available in printable pdf format at the ICAA website:


  1. Binder, E.F., Schechtman, K.B., Ehsani, A.A., et al. Effects of exercise training on frailty in community-dwelling older adults: results of a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc 50(12):1921-1928, 2002. 

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Promoting active lifestyles among older adults. Atlanta: CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Nutrition and Physical Activity. URL:

  3. Cooper, Kenneth. Regaining the Power of Youth. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1998.

  4. Evans, W.J. Exercise as the standard of care for elderly people. J Gerontol A Bio Sci Med Sci 57(5):M260-M261, 2002.

  5. Häkkinen, A., Sokka, T., Hannonen, P. A home-based two-year strength training period in early rheumatoid arthritis led to good long-term compliance: A five-year followup. Arthritis Care & Research, 51(1):56-62, 2004.

  6. Hurley, B. Does strength training improve health status? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 16:7-13, 1994.

  7. Judge, J.O., Kenny, A.M., Kraemer, W.J. Exercise in older adults. Conn Med. 67(8):461-464, 2003.

  8. Häkkinen, K., Kraemer, W.J., Pakarinen, A., et al. Effects of heavy resistance/power training on maximal strength, muscle morphology, and hormonal response patterns in 60-75-year-old men and women.  Can J Appl Physiol. 27(3):213-231, 2002.

  9. Lord, S.R., Sherrington, C., Menz, H.B. Falls in Older People: Risk Factors and Strategies for Prevention. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

  10. The Merck Manual of Geriatrics. Merck & Co., Inc, 2004.

  11. Mosca, L.,  Appel, L.J., Benjamin, E.J., et al. Evidence based guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention in women. Circulatio 109(5):672-693, 2004.

  12. National Center for Health Statistics. Life expectancy, preliminary data 2000. National Vital Statistics Reports, 49(12). URL:, 2003.

  13. Partnership for Prevention. Creating communities for active aging. Washington, DC: Partnership for Prevention, 2002. (

  14. Petersen TJ. SrFit: The Personal Trainer’s Resource for Senior Fitness. The American Academy of Health and Fitness, 2004

  15. Physical Activity and Older Americans: Benefits and Strategies. June 2002. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Centers for Disease Control.

  16. Singh, M.A., Exercise comes of age: rationale and recommendations for a geriatric exercise prescription. J Gerontol Biol Sci Med Sci, 57(5) M262-M282, 2002.

  17. Spirduso, W. Physical Dimensions of Aging. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1995.

  18. Van der Bij, A.K., Laurent, M.G.H., Wensing, M. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for older adults: a review. Am J Preventive Med 22(2):120-33, 2002.

  19. Westcott, W., & Guy, J. A physical evolution: Sedentary adults see marked improvements in as little as two days a week. IDEA Today, 14(9), 58-65, 1996.

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