Five recommendations for communicating effectively with the aging market

by Colin Milner

1. Do your research and know your market.

2. Speak their language, not yours.

3. Educate the market.

4. Create a social support component to your program.

5. Show them step-by-step how to fit exercise into their schedules, what to do, how to do it and then reassure them that it’s safe and beneficial.

© Copyright 1999,
American Senior Fitness






Speaking Their Language 

Communicating the message of physical activity to older adults just got easier

by Colin Milner

Colin Milner is the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging and the former President of IDEA Health and Fitness Association, and Vice President of sales and marketing for Keiser Corporation. Over the past 20 years Milner has been on all sides of the industry including club management, consulting, publishing and equipment manufacturing. He has authored over 80 industry articles and has been interviewed extensively in leading publications such as, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. Milner sits on the advisory board of Can Fit Pro, The American Senior Fitness Association and Peak Performance. If you wish to contact Mr. Milner you can call him toll free at 866-335-9777 or visit the website of the ICAA at www.icaa.cc

As baby boomers move into the 55-plus demographic this decade, the characteristics and interests of this segment of the population will change. The American Association of Retired People (AARP) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation set out to research one of the fastest changing areas: health behavior in the older adult, particularly in the area of physical activity. The initial findings of the AARP study and, in time, other research will become paramount in how our industry communicates the message of physical activity to older adults.

The objective of the AARP research was to better understand those in the older demographic who are active.

The mature market now represents 23% of all fitness memberships, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, and 43% of all hospital wellness center memberships, according to the Medical Fitness Association. What motivates these older adults to be active? And what barriers in their lives keep them from being physically active? The AARP study focused on these areas to see what they could tell us about messages and interventions that will capture the aging population’s hearts and minds.

The fact that older adults are not all the same-that many segments and issues exist-was crucial to the structure and delivery of AARP’s research. As the association dove into this project, it established that the primary distinguishing factor in health behavior was not age, but lifestyle.

Characteristics of the market

AARP found big differences in the attitudes and behaviors of study participants, who were pre-retired, retired and in midlife. These findings could become an important tool in the quest to change people’s behavior around physical activity. They could also become the cornerstone of your communications with the mature market.

Midlife. Forty to sixty year-olds saw midlife as a time of reckoning and change. They were holding on tightly to midlife and weren’t prepared to let go. Work had become the centerpiece of their lives. They felt stretched thin and caught in the middle, as they cared for parents and children. And they weren’t sure how to fit exercise into their lives.

Pre-retired and older than midlife. These people were hanging onto this stage of life and weren’t ready to move on. Although still career oriented, they had experienced changes in their health, which started them thinking about how to battle the aging process-a growing concern for them. This information provides a good clue of how to target physical activity messages to this segment of the older market.

Retired. People in this segment had adopted a new sense of time, as their values and beliefs began to change. Health and disease concerned this group. They also focused on how long they could maintain their independence and functionality, as well as what they would have to do to extend and maximize it.

Segmenting the market

AARP then set out to segment the market based on attitude towards exercise, physical activity and the likelihood of being physically active, rather than on age or health status. They derived the following four segments from their research.

Committed couch potatoes. This group was happily sedentary and had thousands of excuses for why they could not be physically active. There was virtually nothing the industry could do to get them off the couch.

Habitual exercisers. These people had built exercise into their lives. They were committed to consistent exercise, and they would never think of skipping it. Habitual exercisers represented a very small segment of the population.

Planners. This segment was further down the behavior spectrum. They had good intentions, but they thought physical activity was too hard. They couldn’t figure out how to fit exercise into their lives, how to get started or what to do. Planners considered habitual exercisers mean and self-centered, due to the time the exercisers spent on themselves. This perception created an interesting barrier to entry for planners: they feared they might become like the habitual exerciser. This segment did not really believe the American College of Sport Medicine’s (ACSM) minimal guidelines for exercise. To them, 30 minutes a day was way too much. Typical comments from this group included “Nobody should be telling us how much exercise to do,” “We should listen to our bodies,” and “We know we have done enough when we are tired.”

Tryers. This group had built exercise into a part of their lives, but couldn’t figure out how to reach the minimal ACSM guidelines. In fact, this group didn’t believe the guidelines-a major hurdle. Tryers didn’t see how they could possibly do more exercise, and they looked to others to see how to fit exercise into their schedules. Even though they were further along on the spectrum, tryers exercised only one to two times per week for maybe 20 minutes at a time, so they had a long way to go to meet the ACSM guidelines. Tryers relied on information to help them decide what to do, and to figure out what difference following the ACSM guidelines would make in their daily lives.

AARP discovered that each group displayed a certain set of characteristics, regardless of age, lifestyle, gender or perceived health status. But planners and tryers had something in common: they looked for information tips, tools and strategies to help them become more physically active. Simply stated, they were open to the message. AARP intends to focus its efforts on these two groups.

Changing the message

The key to penetrating the hearts and minds of older adults is to speak their language, as AARP discovered early in its research. The association tested a variety of words to assess their effectiveness in communicating the message of physical activity to planners and tryers. The feedback they received was illuminating.

Active: Very positive response

To participants, active meant engaged with life, family and community. They did not equate active with exercise. For people at the older end of the age spectrum, active meant going to church or playing bingo. They also did not connect the word with exercise.

Exercise: Very negative response

Study participants saw exercise as too hard and difficult. “Exercise is not a word that you would want to use in your message,” says Katrinka Sloan, director, Life Resource, for AARP.

Physically active: Very positive reaction

The participants liked the term physically active, because it implied they could do a wide range of activities to be physically active, rather than just going for a walk. They intuitively understood the health benefits.

Fit, being fit, staying fit, and being in shape: very neutral response

“These words are clearly an absolute state,” says Sloan. “Some [participants] liked this because it did not sound as hard as exercise. It’s something you could use in your marketing, but is not necessarily a winner like active. As we heard time and time again, words are extremely important as we think about developing messages.”

AARP also tested words like moderate and vigorous to see if participants understood them in relation to exercise. Vigorous meant nothing to people, because they could not figure out what it meant in terms of physical activity. But they understood moderate, especially when it equated a brisk walk. People probably had some sense that moderate related to pacing and pumping a little harder.

The association also tested the phrase most days of the week versus almost all days of the week. Research participants showed much more comfort with the phrase, most days of the week.

Five days also proved an important threshold for study participants. If people were told the message exercise five days of the week, they protested and said five days was way too much. But they responded positively to more than four days and four or more days.

Finding effective approaches

AARP is determined to learn more about what planners and tryers think. The association plans to take the study findings and design interventions specifically for these two groups.

To achieve this goal, AARP will test five messages this year:

1) Choose self-efficacy-something like a Just believe it, you can do it campaign, which would particularly target the issues of being stretched thin between marriage, jobs, kids and other things;

2) Remind people of their excuses for not exercising, injecting a little humor into these reasons;

3) Show the impact of exercise: exercise versus no exercise;

4) Exercise for the ones you love;

5) Fight the effects of aging by doing physical activity.

“There also appears to be some barriers to overcome in terms of understanding the amount of exercise required under the ACSM guidelines,” says Katrinka Sloan. “[The participants’] level of skepticism is high, as scientists’ recommendations keep changing, so why believe it.”

Participants proved ambivalent about exercise, as they saw it as hard to do. They knew they should exercise, but they didn’t know how to fit it into their busy lives. They also seemed detached from finding a solution.

The research participants also did not understand what strength training was, how to get started or even what to do. Fueled by fear of injury, they had built a prevalent barrier to strength training. Another challenge was their misperception that strength training was for buff young people in spandex. This disbelief and skepticism are important issues to recognize and try to overcome in your communications.


AARP’s valuable research reinforces the need to do your homework before setting out on a communications campaign aimed at the mature market. Learn how to speak the language of older adults. Encourage them to be physically active four or more days per week at moderate intensity. And focus on your low hanging fruit: the planners and tryers. Your success could depend on it.

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