Jan Schroeder, Ph.D by Jan Schroeder, Ph.D

Active older adults know that exercise helps to improve their mood, prevent falls, and improve their functional abilities. Here are five tips for the group exercise instructor to use to keep their active older-adult participants excited about attending class week after week.

Create Classes Specifically for Active Older Adults

It is well-known that group exercise classes have higher adherence rates than individual exercise programs, but attendance rates rise even more when active older adults attend classes that are geared specifically for their age group. Research has shown that older adults adhere to exercise to a greater extent when they can exercise with individuals of similar age as opposed to exercise programs that are made up of both younger and older populations. Active older adults report that they feel less intimated when working out with their peers, who share similar life experiences and goals, as opposed to trying to keep up with younger participants.

Social Hour or Training Time?

When working with active older adults, you may find some like to spend time during the class socializing with their neighbors as opposed to working on their fitness. This can be especially frustrating to instructors who prefer consistent order in their classes as well as being disruptive to other class members. While we would prefer training time to exceed social time, be aware that for many older adults this may be their only face-to-face interaction during the day. Regular socialization helps to reduce the risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation. Exercising in groups provides not just physical benefits, but also mental stimulation and a much-needed social support network for older adults. It is much easier to forgo physical activity when you are the only person who is doing it, but when you create a community within your group class, your members have others to hold them accountable. Research has shown that regular group exercise helps older adults to feel socially connected and experience a sense of security in the community through caring and supporting each other. Plan breaks or partner work into your class and/or schedule social gatherings to allow for social interaction.

Educate Participants about how Exercise Improves their Ability to Perform Daily Activities

Active older adults understand the benefits of exercise for maintaining their independence, but they do not always connect an exercise to the improvement in their activities of daily living. Educating them during class on the purpose of doing a specific exercise, such as a squat, helps them to associate the move with maintaining their ability to do daily activities, such as getting out of a car. This connection will help them realize that each exercise is linked to movement patterns that they encounter during their everyday life. Maintaining one’s independence is a key factor for exercising within the older-adult population, so teaching them how the exercises in each class are helping to reach that goal will keep them coming back.

Offer Progressions and Regressions

Older adults are a diverse group in terms of physical and cognitive abilities. Some of your participants may have been exercising for 70 years while others may have just started their exercise journey. Older adults are also more likely to have medical conditions that require modifications to specific exercises. Offering progressions and regressions to exercises allows your class members to choose the level that is best for them. As the instructor, you should demonstrate numerous levels of an exercise and encourage them to choose which level feels most appropriate. In addition, you should spend equal time at each level so that all participants feel included.

Watch your Language

Avoid using slang such as “you guys,” “honey” or “sweetie,” as older adults may find these terms condescending, especially if you are of a younger age. In addition, learn to speak in a lower voice register. Many older adults may have lost their hearing in the higher frequencies so speaking in a lower register can help them to understand your cues. Keep your cues clear and concise; pausing between each word allows members to process what you are telling them. Music is another factor to keep in mind. Older adults are not afraid to let you know when the music is too loud and they cannot understand you; therefore, keeping the music at a volume that is loud enough for the group to hear, but low enough where they can understand your cues, is vital to the success of your class.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create safe and effective exercise programs for older adults, consider becoming an ACE Senior Fitness Specialist. The ACE Senior Fitness Specialist Program will teach you how to safely and effectively help older adults feel healthy and vibrant through fitness. The program takes a holistic approach to health and fitness, combining rapport-building, behavior change, motivation and adherence, with nutrition and training modifications that get older clients more active, and moving toward better health.