We all share in a graveyard of good intentions: all the equipment we bought from ads on late-night television that was going to give us back our sleek, tight-bodied selves. The Bowflex Home Gym, Jane Fonda Aerobics videos, 8-Minute Abs, Body by Jake and Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster, among others. (The NordicTrack Cross-Country Skier made the best clothes hanger of them all.)
Now, older and wiser, we realize we have the same fitness challenge – or maybe a greater one – but we no longer believe one piece of equipment will meet it. As we age, we know we need to do it right this time: it can determine how we live out the rest of our days. So, we have opted for the fitness gym. But, to be sure we actually use it, we need to find the right one.
Tremendous longevity has been added to our lives, thanks to science and medicine. Sadly, we have not necessarily added to our good health and physical condition at the same pace. Whether from the stress in our fast-paced lives or today’s less-than-healthy eating patterns, we need all the help we can get to live those extra years well.
Decade by decade we have watched our strength and performance levels drop as the result of changes in our hormones, metabolism, bone density and muscle mass. Old sports injuries or new joint issues slow us down. Illnesses, whether age-related or not, become part of our conversation as we make plans for the future. Pain becomes more of a constant partner than we would like.
Exercising, no matter how late we start it, can play a major role in turning things around.
Fitness facilities are being opened in increasing numbers to meet the growing demand. With 78 million aging Baby Boomers, that demand will not be met any time soon. Therefore, today we see exercise facilities associated with hospitals, senior centers and every form of stand-alone fitness gym. By 2017, there were over 36,000gyms, up 11 percent from 2011.
Today we can find any kind of fitness gym we can imagine. Equipment is being tailored to our need for lower impact. Aquatic fitness classes fill swimming pools with masses of seniors looking to build strength and flexibility without doing further damage to joints. While we may be able to come up with endless excuses not to exercise, finding the perfect fitness gym for us is not one of them.
As we consider joining a fitness gym today, it doesn’t matter if we worked out our entire lives, other than the fact that we are more familiar with how gyms work. The truth is that, whether we did or not, exercising adds to how long we will live and how well we will live those years.
Even if we think we are so far out of shape that we could never do much, each small step takes us to where our activity level is making a difference. Every little improvement becomes motivation to do more.
Finding the right fitness gym that fits our personality and that we will use regularly means:
- Taking off some pounds, just because physical activity drives up our metabolism;
- Lessening the risk of falling, thanks to improved strength and stamina;
- Managing any pain we might be dealing with;
- Improving brain functions and slowing various forms of cognitive decline;
- Elevating our mood with the endorphins released by exercise;
- Giving us a sense of achievement for sticking to a goal. and
- Helping us sleep better, which in turn means more energy and more activity.
While cost should not be the only factor, it is an important one if we face budgetary constraints.Other factors deal with ease, as we seek the fitness gym that works for us: what warranty is available, how easily can we start up, how easily can we cancel and how friendly is the company’s customer service.
Then you want to know about the fitness gym itself: what kind of packages it offers, and how financially stable the company is(if you are going to pay for a year-long membership). Also, how focused the gym is on a senior like you and if you can use your Silver Sneakers benefit (if you have one). Because most ‘big chain’ gyms are individual franchises, you will usually have to check with your local gym.
Until we start feeling and seeing the effects of using a fitness gym, we naturally feel resistance – sometimes called procrastination – no matter what our age or condition. The antidote is to find the right fitness gym that matches our wants, needs and personality. We may not get the mix right on the first try, but by setting up some parameters we can increase the chance of doing so.
Atmosphere: The atmosphere in the gym has to be right, or we will not use it regularly. Our preferences are unique to us.Some of us are energized by having younger people work out with us to loud music, but feel pulled down by a quieter environment. Others of us prefer to work out with our peers, with more familiar music, but feel intimidated by the younger crowd. Some prefer exercising alone; others prefer group training or structured classes. Some prefer the anonymity of a large facility; others prefer the intimacy of a small one.
More and more fitness gyms are hiring trainers and staff that specialize in working with older people. This is a positive, as we should feel welcome and supported at a gym, with no hesitation to ask for help when we need it.
Convenience: Convenience is essential. The closer and more convenient the gym’s location, the better. Thinking about battling traffic to drive across town and back can easily dampen our enthusiasm. Also, our schedules and natural rhythms will dictate the best time to do exercise so we should pick one whose hours match ours.(Many fitness gyms are open 24/7.)
Facilities: Look to see how much variety the gym has in equipment. If you are visiting at the time you would usually exercise, are people waiting to use certain pieces? Are instructions posted on machines so you can refresh your memory on how to use them? Are there separate ‘quieter’ rooms, away from the machine activity, where you can do other forms of exercising and stretching? Is there a pool? In short, do you see an activity area where you would feel comfortable, visit after visit?
Cleanliness counts, too. Whether it is the equipment that gets wiped down regularly, either by patrons or staff or the locker rooms, showers, toilets or sinks, everything must be clean.
Some fitness gyms offer special classes for seniors, sometimes also classifying them by level of fitness so everyone is working with similar ability. Check on the frequency and times that interesting classes are offered and if they require an extra fee. (Besides the motivation that comes from working next to a peer, the camaraderie can be a welcome side benefit.)
Fees: The fees have to work with our budget. For many years, fees were high and contracts were almost impossible to get out of, but times have improved somewhat. Some gyms today have very reasonable monthly fees. One-time sign-up fees are more affordable and at times refundable if you find the fitness gym is not right for you within an initial period, say 30 days.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what younger people do when selecting fitness gyms: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Age friendliness: The group called ‘seniors’ ranges from Baby Boomers in their mid-fifties to Depression-era babies in their late seventies and eighties. It is not a single population with similar needs. Some senior centers may offer some fitness training as an adjunct to their other activities, but a better situation might be a fitness gym that understands the physical needs and preferences of the different ages and fitness levels.
Cost is important for seniors who are no longer generating income. However, many government programs and insurance companies recognize the cost savings that come from healthier seniors and subsidize programs in different ways.
Because life circumstances can change unexpectedly for aging seniors, programs should be easy to join and easy to cancel, with automated billing plans to keep the payment process simple. Transportation could be part of an ideal set-up so seniors could continue to participate after they stop driving.
Health-related value: Staying physically active is about so much more than just maintaining our health, although that is a vital aspect. It also relates to our ability to remain independent and to live our later years without restrictions. Staying fit through our forties and fifties certainly gives us a head start as we move into our sixties and beyond, but that should not be a reason not to start at any age.
At a time when our muscle mass is diminishing, the impact of exercise on our health cannot be overstated. By 60, we may have lost 20 percent of our peak muscle mass, and we will lose about 1.5 percent per year after that if we do nothing. We need to find a way to slow, and even reverse, that process. Not only do we want to avoid any falls but, as our health declines, the mood elevation and pain management aspects of exercise become that much more important.
Fitness gym fees start with monthly fees, which average around $54 per month in the U.S. However, fees at the growing trend of budget gyms can start at $10 per month. High-end clubs also exist, with a focus on a popular technique or on sheer luxury.
When considering a fitness gym membership, ask questions about other fees, some of which may be hidden. Some companies have an initiation fee of $50-100 or more. If so, be sure it will be refunded if you sign up for a trial period and opt out of your membership within that period. Some companies have an annual fee of $40+, in addition to the monthly fees.
Ask about other fees for things you might assume are included in your monthly fee, but are not., such as personal trainer assistance, the use of lockers and certain classes.
If you have to sign a membership contract and, either for health or travel reasons, you need to take a break from using the gym, ask if you will be allowed to put your membership on hold. If so, for how long before you would have to pay another initiation fee to reactivate it? And is there a one-time or ongoing charge for doing so?
Fitness gym memberships have been notoriously difficult to terminate. Before signing any contract, confirm that you have a reasonable window to try out the gym. If not, be sure the cancellation process is not complicated and does not trigger a large fee for terminating the contract early. As with many consumer contracts, the fine print is where all the restrictions and exclusions can be found.
To lower the costs, see if your Medicare Supplement plan or Advantage plan offers access to fitness gyms through the Silver Sneakers program. If so, part or all of your membership could be covered. Also, companies offer discounts during membership drives, so watch for promotions. However, don’t look for any January when everyone signs up as part of their New Year’s resolutions.
Besides finding the fitness gym that matches your personality which in turn gives you the greatest chance of using it regularly, the evaluation criteria should begin with cost. Beyond cost, you want to know about the company’s warranty if you are unhappy with the selection, how easy it is to join and to cancel, and how friendly their customer service is when you need assistance.
Cost: The cost to use a fitness gym can run from $0 if you have certain insurances, to $50 or more in monthly fees. However, while cost is very important if you are on a restricted budget, it is not the only factor if the gym you can afford does not align with your personality and your needs. Even a $10-per-month gym is expensive if you do not use it.
Warranty: Ideally, fitness gyms should give us 30 days to try out a facility before having to commit formally to long periods of time.Unfortunately, the model for many large chains is to enroll vast numbers of people through special promotions and low fees and make it difficult to terminate the contract. Companies know that a certain percentage of members will rarely use the facility, if at all. That allows the company to profit from a disproportionate membership without putting pressure on available machines, staff, etc. Be sure to give priority to companies that offer some form of trial period.
Ease: Everything about belonging to a fitness gym should be easy, to help us overcome our resistance to joining in the first place and then to using the facility early on. Once we have gone for several weeks and start seeing and feeling the benefits, the motivation to continue kicks in. Despite that powerful motivation, bill-paying should remain easy and trouble-free.
Cancellation: Whether your membership is month-to-month or an annual contract, it is important to know how cancellation works. In a month-to-month arrangement, you want to know by what date you would have to cancel (and how) to avoid an additional month of payment. With an annual contract, you want to know the exact procedure, timing and possible cost.
Customer service: It is always helpful to have an excellent relationship with the company, the trainers and the staff, and that relationship starts the very first day with the company’s customer service. While you would have contact with customer service primarily regarding administrative issues such as memberships and payments, anything negative on that front could affect how you feel about the rest.
Many of the ‘big chain’ fitness gyms have made accommodations so they can attract and hold seniors as members. Some have managed to carve out areas and activities that appeal to seniors and, because of their size and number, can afford to offer many amenities at a reasonable price.
However, with the buying power of the Baby Boomers in full force, smaller regional or local chains – or even individual gyms – have popped up to fill part of the demand.Some have been started by other seniors who see a gap in the market. Today’s equipment is tailored slightly to meet our physiology. The music is more familiar to us. And, fitness professionals are peers who specialize in working with older adults and who can coordinate with our primary care physicians.
The greatest attraction is the idea of working out with people our age and not feeling the need to compare ourselves to the buff 25-year-old next to us. Yes, we want to lose weight, improve our posture, increase our bone density and loosen up tight joints. But most of all, we want to fit in.
Several seniors we asked said their top decision criteria were: convenient location, affordability, great class instructors and “our friends are there.” In short, the best fitness program for you is the one you will stick with long enough to get results.
As you look for the perfect fitness gym, do not overlook these small specialty gyms. Ask friends about their experiences. Take tours of facilities until you find the right one. Remember, it is the key to your long-term healthy lifestyle.