Daniel J. Green is ACE’s Senior Project Manager and Editor for Publications and Content Development. In addition to his work with organizations including the International Association of Fire Fighters and Agriculture Future of America, Daniel writes an ongoing blog series covering lifestyle change for NBCbetter.com. He has also written feature articles for local publications in Western North Carolina (WNC), including WNC Parent and WNC Magazine.
Could Ageism Be Affecting Your Clients?
Age may just be a number, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole lot of ideas and beliefs tied to what those numbers might mean, especially for those who have reached middle age and beyond. And those ideas and beliefs—many of them culturally informed—influence how we perceive the capabilities and capacities of the clients we serve.
Unfortunately, ours is not a society that tends to venerate its elders. Rather, we are often more inclined to ascribe attributes and characteristics that may, in fact, have nothing in common with the person in front of us. This is the danger of ageism and, like many areas of bias, it is worth examining to determine what it looks like and how we can be on guard against it. Although it can appear in a wide range of settings, this article takes a close look at where ageism might show up in a fitness facility or the client–professional relationship and offers strategies to address those concerns.
Who, Exactly, is Considered an “Older Adult”?
The first issue that arose each time I discussed the topic of ageism with ACE colleagues and other industry experts was the wide range of people covered by the 50+ guideline we’re using to define “older adults.” The heterogeneity of people aged 50 to 100 makes this categorization almost meaningless (and I’m not just saying that as someone who will turn 50 between the time this article was written and when it will be published).
Imagine someone writing an article covering the “0 to 50 crowd”—another 50-year age range. You’d scoff and rightly question what a high school athlete has in common with a woman who is approaching menopause or how a toddler might compare to a 45-year-old with prediabetes. The same holds true across the broad spectrum of individuals who make up the 50 and older crowd.
Clearly, labeling someone as a “senior” or “older adult” reveals little about their individual health, fitness and capabilities, not to mention their goals, limitations, values and the countless other variables that drive their desire to work with an exercise professional or health coach. Assuming you know anything at all about a person after learning their age alone can trigger a whole cascade of issues that may negatively impact the quality of that person’s exercise experience, their success in pursuing their goals and your ability to serve as an effective professional.
Perhaps the most impactful mistake an exercise professional or health coach can make takes place before a client even steps through the doors of the facility, and it involves making assumptions about the person’s capabilities and then training them according to their age rather than their abilities.
“It’s really easy for fitness professionals to think of age like a disease,” says Keli Roberts, ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach and Group Fitness Instructor and a 2007 inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame. This can lead to them believing that an older person is far less capable than they truly are.
Sabrena Jo, PhD, ACE Senior Director of Science and Research, agrees. It’s impossible to effectively train a client without taking into account the whole person, she says. “That is the first mistake many pros make. Regardless of how old you are as a trainer, whether you’re in your 20s or your 60s, there’s no way you can possibly understand another person’s experience.”
Pete McCall, National Director of Fitness Education for EoS Fitness and author of Ageless Intensity: Effective Workouts to Slow the Aging Process and Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple, says that lack of understanding typically manifests as exercise programming or class design that is less intense than what may be appropriate.
So, why are pros so worried about pushing older clients too hard? “They’re cautious,” McCall explains, “because they’ve been told that older people are more fragile, and they may have seen that with older adults in their own lives.”
In other words, many health coaches and exercise professionals are making assumptions about a potential client’s capabilities before even meeting them for the first time. The cautiousness that McCall describes typically stems from a fear of pushing too hard when working with less fit and potentially frail individuals. In truth, however, older age doesn’t equal frailty. And advancing age doesn’t necessarily equate to declining health and fitness.
“Probably more so than with any other age group,” argues Dr. Jo, who is also an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach and Group Fitness Instructor, “it’s really important to develop rapport with older clients and really understand not only what they want, but also what they can tolerate.”
Which brings us to…
With every client, regardless of age, communication and personalized exercise programming are vital. That begins during the health screening and initial conversations with a new client, which should be used to increase your understanding of the person’s capabilities and limitations, alongside everything else you need to know about a client in order to personalize their program.
Those capabilities and limitations should be the guiding force behind any programming decisions, as the ultimate goal is to empower clients to make continual progress without pushing them beyond their limits and toward injury or illness.
Our experts offer some great strategies for developing exercise programs for older clients.
1. Start slowly but don’t be scared of progression.
When working with older clients, Dr. Jo recommends starting with less intense or beginner-level movements, which you can use as “assessments” while the client is simply going through some introductory movements and exercises. “You, as a fitness pro, can recognize pretty quickly if that person can tolerate simpler movements before you add complexity,” she explains. “Then, it doesn’t seem like they’re being assessed or judged.” (For more tips from Dr. Jo, be sure to check out the video at the end of this article.)
Once you’ve established a baseline, the goal, as with all clients, should be to offer safe and effective programming that progresses over time. Roberts explains that older clients are often treated as fragile or incapable and therefore given milder forms of exercise and less progression. As a result, they are underworked and set up for disappointment when they fall short of their goals.
“It’s incredibly ageist to think that over the age of 50, you’re not going to be capable of doing really good, strong work,” says Roberts. “You can.”
The lesson here is to avoid being so worried that you become overly cautious. While safety is always essential, it is the effectiveness portion of “safe and effective programming” that will help you retain clients.
Older people want to get healthier and more fit just like everyone else, explains McCall. And, if they are experienced exercisers, they will know when enough is enough. “It comes back to being comfortable pushing people to work hard,” he says. “My job as a trainer or instructor is to push you to do 1% more than you think you can.”
2. Focus on recovery.
While everyone is different, says Dr. Jo, “there is no getting around the fact that the older you get, the longer it takes to heal.”
Recovery becomes increasingly important as we age, both throughout the week and within each session. As we grow older, Roberts explains, we must become more intentional when it comes to recovery. She often finds that she and her clients can perform the same types of activities they did when they were younger, but simply need more time to recover.
3. Offer options.
Offering options is important, not only in terms of regressions or progressions, but also as alternatives for how a particular exercise can be performed.
Dr. Jo uses the lunge as an example of how to modify an exercise based on a client’s specific needs or limitations. Imagine you are working with a client who is capable of adding an external load to a static lunge exercise but they experience pain at their hands and wrists while holding dumbbells down at their sides. To minimize or eliminate the pain, they can rest the dumbbells on their shoulders rather than holding the weights down at their sides. “Both options use the same amount of load,” Dr. Jo explains, “but the client can adjust the exercise to accommodate their perception of pain or fatigue.”
“Being able to do that as a person who works with older adults will really expand your toolbox,” Dr. Jo says. It will free you to be more creative in your programming as you work with clients to find what feels right for them.
Also, be mindful of the way you talk about modifications and frame them for older clients. Roberts cites elderspeak as an area where ageism may negatively impact clients. Elderspeak is a style of speaking where a younger person will use a simpler vocabulary or talk more slowly and loudly when communicating with an older person. While this can be an effective communication strategy and convey comfort when working with clients with dementia, for example, it can feel infantilizing to those who have no cognitive issues.
When people encounter elderspeak, says Roberts, “they feel as if they are being spoken down to rather than spoken to like a capable person.”
Adopting elderspeak without knowing if it’s necessary is ageist and will likely damage your relationship with older clients. To avoid elderspeak and maintain positivity, ask yourself, “Am I framing this modification in such a way that it makes the client feel that I’m having them do something less solely because of their age? Or am I being supporting and empowering?”
Dr. Jo offers the following as an example of a positive and effective way to talk to a client about choosing the right modification of an exercise: “Let’s see if this feels right for your body today.” This language is collaborative and avoids talk of regressions or the need to simplify or alter an exercise to accommodate the client’s ability level.
4. Be mindful of the unique characteristics of aging.
While every client should be treated as an individual, it’s important to understand issues related to aging, including memory issues, health and fitness status, disease status and self-efficacy.
These potential issues should be reflected in how you develop programming for older clients, especially as it is increasingly common for individuals to manage multiple conditions as they grow older. The needs of a client with arthritis and balance concerns are very different from those of a client with obesity and type 2 diabetes, so it is up to you to educate yourself on these conditions through continuing education and then to apply that knowledge when working with older clients.
Some Notes on Group Fitness
Group fitness poses a unique set of challenges. “The disadvantage you have,” explains Dr. Jo, “is that as a group fitness instructor, you don’t typically have that personal relationship and you don’t have time to ask questions and assess and really understand what it’s like to live as that person, and so you do have to make some generalizations.”
This may run counter to the personalization already highlighted as being essential when working with older clients, but GFIs don’t typically have the luxury of building rapport before a participant joins a class. People of all ages and abilities may walk through that door at any time.
So, what strategies can a GFI use to challenge their older participants while still providing a safe exercise experience?
“The data says that a majority of people who are over 50 years old are going to have at least one chronic condition, maybe two—heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiometabolic concerns, but also problems with joints, like arthritis,” explains Dr. Jo. “And so, you have to go into the planning of the class knowing that and include exercises that address those concerns first and foremost, before you give options for increasing intensity.”
Roberts suggests offering classes that are specific to older participants whenever you can. While this won’t entirely eliminate the possibility of an older adult walking into a class designed for a younger or more fit population, having these classes on the schedule will help older participants decide what might be the best fit for them.
Roberts also recommends offering online classes for those who can no longer make it to the gym. She has had a lot of success with online group fitness, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, Roberts says that you should adjust not only your class design, but also your cueing and presentation. For example, older clients often like to hear clear instructions, and are often more concerned about injury than their younger counterparts, so it’s a good idea to turn the music down in classes for older participants. Also, if possible, take the time to get to know your participants over time and discuss any vision or hearing issues of which you should be aware.
Creating a Welcoming Environment
Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a hot topic in the fitness industry and beyond, and for good reason. However, age is often lost in this conversation, which typically focuses on things like size inclusivity, gender identity, sexual identity, and race and ethnicity.
How Does Ageism Affect Exercise Professionals and Health Coaches?
As the fitness industry has matured, so has the prevailing attitude about its professionals growing older. All three of the experts interviewed for this story agree that it’s gotten better over time, but that ageism still exists and will probably always exists. That said, Dr. Jo explains, the emphasis on appearance was largely what defined the industry in the 1980s and ‘90s. As a pro, if you looked good, that was enough.
The promotion of education and evidence-based programming has helped shift the focus away from youth and appearance and more toward skill and experience, Dr. Jo explains.
McCall feels that aging as a pro can be a benefit, as people are increasingly likely to consider you an expert. Younger pros look up to you, he says, and older clients can better relate to you.
There is great value in trainers and instructors aging alongside their clients, says Roberts, as there is an advantage gained through mutual understanding. “You may face ageism in getting hired,” she says, but relationships and relatability improve as your grow older.
“Different gyms have different attitudes,” Roberts says. She emphasizes the importance of doing your homework before joining a facility’s team and doing everything you can to make sure you will feel valued, both by management and by the facility’s membership.
But, before any of the above can take place in terms of exercise programming and class design, older clients have to feel comfortable stepping through the doors of the facility. Therefore, it’s important to consider what you and the facilities in which you work can do to create a more welcoming and empowering space for older clients.
People typically want to work out in a space where the people around them look like they do, and this may be even more true for a lot of older adults. Facilities can cater to the people they see coming in at a certain time and take advantage of that trend by adding opportunities such as “exercise programs for function and balance” or “circuit training for active agers” to the small-group training or group exercise schedule.
It’s also a good idea to occasionally check in with clients to ask whether they find the environment inspiring or demotivating. Have a conversation about their response to the fitness space and the people around them. For example, some older clients may be inspired by seeing younger, more fit members performing advanced or higher-intensity movements, while others may be intimidated and shy away from joining a particular small-group training session. In this latter situation, perhaps you could recommend another training group made up of older clients with similar fitness levels and limitations.
Finally, consider your marketing and signage. This is a standard recommendation when talking about EDI as it relates to fitness facilities. People like to see people who look like them enjoying physical activity and moving with smiles on their faces. So, review your website, brochures, marketing pieces and in-house signage to make sure they depict people of all shapes, colors, sizes, abilities and, yes, ages.
The key to successfully connecting with older clients, explains Roberts, is to “work them at their functional capacity, not at their chronological age.” The idea that someone who is 50+ years of age is incapable of working hard or pushing themselves to improve is absurd, she says.
McCall agrees wholeheartedly, saying that the desire for fitness among older clients has become more normalized as more Gen Xers cross that age-50 threshold. Clients in their fifties, sixties and beyond can still change their bodies; it just might take 12 months instead of six, or two years instead of one. “You just have to be smarter, more methodical and more cautious about how you do it,” he says.
“Older clients are a great population to work with,” concludes Roberts. “They’re highly motivated.” They’re more consistently motivated, as well, she says, because they’re motivated by life goals that are often longer term and more health related. “They’re working out to be independent and strong for the rest of their lives.”
The final piece of advice shared by all three of our experts is to get educated on what it takes to work with this population. “Once you know what you’re doing,” says Roberts, “you can be a much more effective trainer or coach.”
Expand Your Knowledge
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