Health and Fitness Information for Mature Adults 

April 16, 2008              

Table of Contents

  • Ramping Up Senior Fitness (Introduction to special issue)

  • Offer Sound Activity Choices (Programming)

  • Use the Right Stuff (Equipment)

  • Create a Safe, Inviting Environment (Amenities and procedures)

  • Employ Appropriate Program Facilitators (Personnel)

  • Provide Something Special (Client recruitment and retention)

Ramping Up Senior Fitness

Recently SFA president Janie Clark, M.A., was asked to write an article for Parks & Recreation, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. The publisher requested information for recreation managers who are considering offering a senior fitness program for the first time. In addition to general programming ideas, they were interested in what types of features to look for in strength training equipment. Following is Janie’s article, reprinted by permission of Parks & Recreation magazine and the National Recreation and Park Association:

Perhaps your facility is planning to launch a senior-specific exercise program. Or maybe you'd like to infuse new life into existing services to ensure their continued success. Following are some suggestions on how to start or ramp up your senior fitness programming.

Offer Sound Activity Choices

Physical activity does not have to be conventional exercise to provide important physiological and psychosocial benefits. Good examples include senior sports leagues and various types of dance including ballroom dancing, square dancing, folk dancing, and line dancing. Although a complete physical fitness program must include certain training components (cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and balance), any element lacking in a greatly enjoyed activity can be pursued separately.

Fitness for older adults can take one of many forms. Senior personal training is on the rise. Meanwhile certain forms of group exercise have proven ever popular among older adults, including aquatic fitness classes, tai chi, gentle yoga (which takes special care not to overtax the joints), low-impact aerobic dance, and fitness walking (which can be performed indoors or out depending on terrain and climate variables).

One offering that may help to get sedentary seniors in your door is chair-seated exercise classes. Other forms of exercise that have gained favor among older adults in recent years include balance and stability training (sometimes referred to as fall prevention), circuit training (which can feature aerobics, muscle strengthening, or a combination of exercise modes), and senior-specific strength training.

The range of viable activity possibilities is broad. Develop programming consistent with the physical attributes of your location, your faculty's areas of expertise, and your clients' needs and preferences.

Use the Right Stuff

Successful aerobic conditioning can be conducted without the use of any equipment, and effective strength training can be achieved using inexpensive exercise accessories, such as dumbbells and resistance bands. Facilities with the budgets and space to do so may also elect to provide strength machines or endurance equipment like treadmills, steppers, and stationary cycles. The following excerpts from American Senior Fitness Association publications, reprinted by permission, provide some considerations for choosing machinery well-suited for use by senior clients:

Equipment selection should take into account space constraints, weight limits on the workout floor, and the number of participants exercising at the same time. Too many machines crowded together can result in an increased risk for stumbling or falling.

Exercise stations for seniors must safely and comfortably accommodate persons of different sizes and heights. Therefore, all of your exercise machines need to be fully adjustable to body size. Be wary of extremely low-priced products. They may be lightweight models that will wear out quickly given heavy use.

Regarding endurance equipment for seniors, timers are useful for preventing over-exertion. Immediate access to large, clearly visible stop buttons on motorized equipment must be available to both trainer and participant. Recumbent versions of certain aerobic machines are ideal for many seniors.

Guard rails may be needed for equipment on which clients must stand. Convenient, easy-to-secure safety belts and harnesses often prove indispensable to clients with balance problems. Equipment with turbines and fly wheels should have protective guards to prevent fingers, hands, or feet from getting caught.

Regarding strength training for seniors, it is essential to start low and go slow. Strength equipment should permit the client to start out with minimal resistance and increase it by small increments of 2.5 pounds or less. Variable-resistance machines will adjust intensity according to the degree of muscle contraction, providing optimal resistance throughout the movement.

Certain strength machines are liable to compel a senior exerciser to work beyond his or her safe range of motion. This may apply to participants with arthritis or other joint problems, so they need close supervision by the trainer. Some equipment products can be adjusted so that a subject's range can be limited and controlled as needed.

A resistance training program with strength machines might utilize the following equipment:

  • Leg extension/leg curl equipment for quadriceps and hamstrings;

  • Hip adductor/abductor equipment for inner and outer thighs;

  • Heel/toe raise stations for calves and shins;

  • Leg press machine largely for the gluteals;

  • “Pec deck” for the chest;

  • Abdominal curl machine for the abdomen;

  • Lat pull-down station for a major portion of the back;

  • Lateral raise apparatus for the shoulders; and

  • Biceps curls and triceps extension equipment for upper arms.

Additionally, strength equipment targeting the forearms may be used. While beneficial for many seniors, a few stations (for example, neck or lower back machines) may be inadvisable for others. Obtain medical clearance specific to the particular piece of equipment when any doubt exists as to an individual's potential tolerance or response to the type of training involved.

Create a Safe, Inviting Environment

In planning for senior fitness, you need to take stock of your facility's amenities and policies. Below are several factors that are involved in establishing and maintaining a proper senior exercise setting.

A senior-friendly facility is clean and permits easy access to entrances and exits, as well as to restrooms and drinking water sources. Indoor temperature and humidity levels are regulated. The floor surface minimizes exercise impact on the joints and any risk of tripping (for example, a wood floor with air space beneath is good for aerobic dance activity; cement or thick carpeting is risky). Lighting and room layout mitigate age-related declines in vision and balance. Acoustics and sound levels optimize hearing, and music selections reflect clients' tastes.

Procedurally, an operative emergency plan must be in place, and signed medical releases must be obtained from senior participants' physicians. In addition to standard forms prepared by the facility's legal counsel, each client should complete a lifestyle and health history questionnaire and take part in an interview process to formulate an individualized fitness plan. New clients should undergo an initial functional fitness appraisal (for purposes of goal setting and program design), which should be repeated periodically to track progress and ensure ongoing benefits.

Employ Appropriate Program Facilitators

A physical activity leader must take these steps to ensure a proper exercise session for older adults:

  • Supervise a thorough warm-up period;

  • Implement correct training methods with respect to mode, frequency, duration, intensity, format and sequencing, technique, and indicated exercise modifications;

  • Monitor exercise intensity and each client's exercise response during training, adjusting the activity as needed;

  • Supervise a thorough cool-down period.

Senior fitness leaders should be certified in both adult CPR and basic first aid. Older adult fitness participants have an elevated risk for bone fracture, hard-to-control bleeding, diabetic emergency, heat injury, and other mishaps that may occur during training. First aid proficiency is mandated by national and international senior fitness professional curriculum guidelines. It should be required by employers for these reasons, as well as for liability considerations.

Among other areas of specialized study, physical activity leaders of older adults should complete training that addresses:

  • the physiology of aging, including models of healthy aging;

  • senior-specific fitness training guidelines and exercise safety measures;

  • exercise adaptations for diseases and health concerns prevalent in senior populations;

  • exercise precautions in connection with commonly prescribed medications; and

  • the psychology of aging, including communication issues as well as ethnic and gender factors.

Provide Something Special

Receiving a little something extra can mean a lot to current and potential fitness clients, and supplying it will distinguish your program from others. Providing clients with the royal treatment, comfortable social opportunities, and intellectual stimulation, including health education, helps promote exercise adherence. Make it rewarding and interesting to keep your patrons coming back. Here are several ideas to improve the experience for the aging exerciser:

  • Guarantee that visitors and new clients feel welcome. Make introductions and follow a helpful orientation routine. Enlist a veteran participant to be the newcomer's "exercise buddy" for a time.

  • Give your clients an informative newsletter.

  • Regularly hold after-class mixers featuring healthful, easy-to-chew snacks. Even short get-togethers provide a beneficial social outlet.

  • Many older adults are attached to a beloved pet. If practical in your venue, try a bring-your-pet day.

  • Invite guest-experts in to speak on topics like good nutrition, stress management, and smoking cessation.

  • Team up with local medical providers to host a senior wellness fair or health screening.

  • If possible, send out a trainer on small-group training calls. This allows neighbors on fixed incomes to share the cost of personal training, and it also overcomes transportation obstacles.

  • Consider niche programming, such as fitness conditioning for better golf, self-defense for seniors, or an arthritis-specific exercise class, which can also serve as a valuable support group.

  • Offer senior discounts, slow-time-of-day discounts, bring-a-friend incentives, or all three.

Remember, you need to keep your senior fitness program safe, effective, and engaging to be the best!

Experience! readers: Thank you for your interest and questions. Due to the high volume of contacts SFA receives, we cannot respond to individual queries or comments. However, the newsletter does address frequently asked questions and topics of vital interest to our members.

Free SFA basic membership: If you aren't already a member of the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA), just sign up online at There are no fees or membership dues. And, we don't give out our members' personal information to others! When you join SFA, you'll receive our e-newsletter "Experience!" which will bring you older adult fitness news, research, and wellness tips.

Fitness and health professionals: You may distribute copies of Experience! to your exercise clients and patients as a free newsletter service. Copies of Experience! or excerpts therefrom must always ascribe credit to the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA). To fulfill that requirement, include the complete banner (title information at the top of each newsletter) as well as all post-newsletter notes, messages, copyright information, and the SFA logo.
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