JAN 18, 2021 | BY NETWORK
In this first of a two-part series Leigh Sherry and Lianne Tiemens discuss the need to shake up industry perceptions about fitness delivery to older adults.
Leigh Sherry is an accredited Exercise Physiologist based in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where she runs SmartLife® Health & Fitness. Leigh is also a group fitness instructor of more than 20 years. Leigh and I share an unstoppable drive and passion for fitness. The kind where we can push our clients and members to go further in life. We also both work closely with mature age participants. We recently sat down to discuss the image of mature fitness in the fitness industry.
It will make you a better trainer
“The thing that frustrates me most is when people say about my senior participants, ‘Your oldies are so cute,’” Leigh starts off, “my response is always the same; one day this is you.”
Listening to Leigh’s comment I have to admit I share her frustration. As an aqua fitness instructor, I too experience this. I cannot even count how many times fellow gym-goers and trainers have said to me, “It is so good to see the old people in your class exercise.” We sigh. We agree, unspoken, that these comments only fuel our drive to spread the word about the importance of ‘mature fitness’, as it is officially referred to.
When I first met Leigh a couple of years ago, I was impressed by her refreshing approach to fitness in general and her take on mature fitness in particular. It was inspiring to finally meet an expert and peer who doesn’t look down upon us trainers that work with older adults. As I tell Leigh, typically, the moment I mention to a fellow fitness professional that I teach aqua fitness classes, the standard reply is ‘Isn’t that for old people?’ Immediately, they write me off as a trainer and show absolutely no further interest in my professional skills and experience. It leaves me feeling like I am a B-Rated professional. It baffles me.
“Actually”, says Leigh, “the skillset required for teaching mature age classes will benefit your coaching capacity in other populations. It makes you a better trainer.”
Leigh and I have a different educational background and we work in different areas, but between us we have close to 40 years of experience in group fitness and personal training. In all these years of instructing, it has been the work with mature age groups that has taught us most – both as trainers, and as humans.
Challenging expectations and skill sets
Our senior participants challenged our original skill sets from the get-go. As Leigh recalls the time she first started working with a group of war veterans, she highlights the importance of adapting and evolving the scripting and cueing, “When I started working with this group, I realised they were used to a certain way of moving and believed that they were limited to this. I spent a lot of time on how I addressed this group with my scripting and my cues. My aim was to change their mindset and behaviour towards exercise, by explaining why certain movements were important and how they could be transferred to their day-to-day lives. Over time, the group’s morale changed and their resolve became stronger than ever before.”
For some older adult participants, their enthusiasm took them well beyond the boundaries of dedicated mature fitness classes. Leigh continues, “One of the members that stood out to me was Billy. Billy was 82 at the time, and at one stage was doing 18 classes a week, including my BODYATTACK class. He loved being around the young energy. His zest for life and ‘Bring it on!’ approach was contagious. So much so that ‘Bring it on!’ became a catchphrase.”
We have both noticed that it can be an insidious approach by some sections of the fitness industry to make seniors feel like they are not capable of being exposed to certain types of exercise. “What Billy showed is pure resilience and determination,” says Leigh, “he was more than capable and many seniors are – if they are coached properly. They want to be challenged.”
I could not agree more. Who would want to be constantly reminded of their ageing and be treated like they are frail and incapable?
“How amazing was Dave?” I ask Leigh as we continue to reminisce about some of our remarkable and sometimes flamboyant senior members. Dave used to come to Leigh’s and my classes. I don’t think anyone knew exactly how old Dave was, but he was in his seventies, at least. Sadly, Dave recently passed away. I continue, “It was just remarkable how he travelled all around Sydney to attend ‘his’ classes. Just his presence was so inspiring for the other members in the classes.” We miss Dave.
Why is training mature age participants considered so unsexy?
It may be one of the biggest paradoxes in modern Western life; we all want to live for as long as we can, in good health, but we keep denying the fact that for this to happen we age. Involuntarily. You can’t have one without the other. No matter how hard you try or pretend.
We know that strength, stamina, and flexibility significantly decline after age 55. We also know that many of these functional losses can be reversed with the correct exercise approach. There is a clear, almost desperate, need for mature age fitness training, as we all try to escape our ageing. Yet the image of mature fitness remains an enormous cliché, especially, ironically, among fitness professionals.
Why is training older people embraced by so few fitness professionals and generally considered so unsexy, when it is so rewarding? Our senior clients and members give our work an enormous amount of purpose and meaning; “The achievements of my mature clients are so gratifying,” says Leigh. “One of my clients came in with a fractured hip, this is in my capacity as an Exercise Physiologist. He is now leg pressing around 90kg. When he started, he had no confidence and was questioning everything. It was affecting his mental state. He doesn’t need his walking stick anymore and goes for 8km walks every day. This is extremely rewarding.”
Leigh also makes another point, “This kind of intervention is a significant contribution to health status and the spend on GDP in terms of health conditions. This is making a real dent.”
I can tell by looking at Leigh’s face how passionate she is about her work and her clients – she is a woman on a mission.
One of the Top 10 Fitness Trends for 2020
‘Fitness Programs for Older Adults’ was named one of the Top 10 Fitness Trends by the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) in its Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2020. It has been ranked in the leading trends since 2017.
Leigh and I are witnessing this growing trend first-hand. We see it every day. Leigh runs seniors’ classes on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “When I started my classes I had a handful of people. I managed to grow these classes to more than 50 participants, pre-COVID. Now, in a COVIDSafe environment, we have had to add more classes to the timetable to cater for this rising need.”
I see it too. In my aqua fitness world I have observed a significant increase in class numbers over the past five years or so. Also, in our current COVIDSafe aqua fitness domain, classes are being added to timetables to meet the growing demand.
So why don’t more trainers and fitness providers jump at this opportunity? Especially when the ACSM report also mentions that ‘these individuals in general have more discretionary money than their younger counterparts do, and fitness clubs may be able to capitalise on this growing market. People are living longer, working longer, and remaining healthy and active much longer.’1 Is the image of mature fitness so poor that it is inadvertently dampening business opportunities for fitness professionals and organisations?
Mature fitness is so much more
Where other areas in the Fitness Industry seem to evolve at the speed of light, mature fitness as a whole appears to have not done so. Although there is a time and a place for a chair and machine-based workouts, mature fitness is so much more.
It is about getting to know your clientele. It’s about upgrading your skills as a professional to cater to this market. Your clientele may also need a little extra convincing to venture beyond their comfort zones of gentle, seated workouts if they have started to believe the ‘oldie’ stereotype themselves.
Positive reassurance, support and motivation are essential for making participants believe that they can do much more than they are currently. Yes, there may be limitations to what they are able to do, but it’s highly unlikely they’ve come anywhere near those limits yet. The opportunities for us as fitness professionals are equally limitless, especially considering that we are also not immune to the ageing process.
Trainer advice from the ‘cute oldies’
Leigh asked the members of her seniors’ squad what advice they would give trainers working with senior clients. There was a loud and unanimous response of ‘don’t be patronising or condescending!’ One of her members added, “It is very off-putting when you have an instructor who treats you like you’re old.” I remember a conversation I had with my late dad when he was in his late 50’s. I tell Leigh, “My dad told me, ‘when I look in the mirror this old man looks back at me and I think who is he?’ Inside I still feel like I’m 28.” Leigh nods, she continues, “My seniors have also highlighted the importance of how I explain why certain movements are vital. It is one of the key things for them, gaining understanding about movement and how to transfer this to their everyday life.” That is the real, practical interpretation of functional fitness.
Take a leaf out of their book
If fitness can be defined as the ability to do your daily tasks without getting out of breath or overexerting yourself, some of our mature age participants are the epitome of fitness. If I’m lucky enough to make it to 80, I can only hope that I am as fit, and able to live my life as fully, as the participants in our classes.
We can learn a thing or two from many of our mature gym goers. They are some of the most disciplined and loyal members you’ll find in any gym or pool. Come rain, hail or shine, they’re there. They don’t overcomplicate things: they simply find a workout they enjoy, and then attend, week-in, week-out. As Leigh and I are privileged to see, it pays off for them, both physically and mentally.
- Thompson, Walter R. Ph.D., FACSM (2019), “WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF FITNESS TRENDS FOR 2020”, https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2019/11000/WORLDWIDE_SURVEY_OF_FITNESS_TRENDS_FOR_2020.6.aspx
Lianne is a Group Fitness Leader, PT and Aqua Fitness Presenter based in Adelaide. A passionate and in-demand instructor and mentor at leading gyms and aquatic centres, she specialises in land- and water-based group HIIT workouts. instagram.com/lianne_tiemens_group_fitness / facebook.com/liannetiemensgroupfitness
The founder of SmartLife Health & Fitness based on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Leigh is a wellness advocate, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Accredited Exercise Scientist. smartlifehealth.com.au