Catherine South (right) with fitness instructor Marilyn Ruehlman at Fitworks in Beavercreek, Ohio. 
Catherine South (right) with fitness instructor Marilyn Ruehlman at Fitworks in Beavercreek, Ohio.  - 

It’s that time of year again, when many of us return to our lapsed gym memberships or perhaps resolve to get in shape next year. Gyms and health clubs have been a growth market for decades now, and it turns out the fastest-growing group for gym membership is people over 55.

As a result, some fitness centers are trying to tailor their programs and their vibe to seniors. For example, at Fitworks in Beavercreek, Ohio, a few dozen seniors meet twice a week for Silver Sneakers classes, a low-key aerobic workout for people 65 and up.

 “I love it,” said Catherine South, age 79. “I’ve worked parts I didn’t know I had.”

South is on the administrative staff, and she says she has seen more and more of the silver-haired crowd over the years. But there’s still a big untapped market. “If they’d only come in and see how many seniors we actually have working out, I think they would change their mind quickly,” she said.

Meredith Poppler, vice president of industry growth at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), said the 55 and over age group has grown more than 500 percent since 1990. The second-fastest growing group for gym memberships, people under 18, hasn’t even seen half that.

Some of the change is just demographic—the Baby Boomers are aging. “That’s when people are retiring, they have more time to work out,” said Poppler. “I’m so jealous of my father, he gets to work out every day.”

And, Baby Boomers were the original crowd that started the gym craze in the 1980s, when fitness centers became something that wasn’t just for elite country club members.

Now this population has different health needs. “'I wanna play with my grandchildren,' or 'I wanna hit the golf ball farther,'” said Dan Ritchie, who runsthe Functional Aging Institute, a consulting firm out of Indiana helping fitness centers become more senior-friendly.

He said it starts with the aesthetic. “Picture what you would expect a BMW or a Mercedes lobby to look like,” Ritchie said. The vibe is also important; he coaches clubs to lose the warehouse, macho, sculpted-bodies-only feel.

In fact, Ritchie says he advises gyms to try to keep young men away. “We don’t want them in our facility,” he said. “Women in their 50s and 60s don’t want to see guys in their 30s strutting their stuff.

To be fair, it surely depends on the woman, but you get the idea.