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Gyms running after baby boomers

/ Source: The Associated Press

At age 65, Lillian Doran knows what she doesn’t want from a gym.

“I don’t want a place that just caters to the young and thin,” she said. “I don’t want to be around these babies who are a size 2.”

Doran, a petite, fit-looking woman herself, wants a place that makes people her age feel comfortable — and these days, that’s not so hard to find.

People over 55 now represent nearly a quarter of all health club members, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. The increase been the defining change in the fitness center industry over the past 15 years.

Gyms that vied for the youth market with snazzy juice bars and tanning salons now offer low-impact courses like water aerobics, walking, or chair aerobics, which aren’t so tough on the joints.

Even major chains are lowering the adrenaline to make seniors feel at ease.

This month, Bally Total Fitness will launch its “Build Your Own Membership” ad campaign largely aimed at aging baby boomers — the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

“We’re moving away from that ad that only shows young, beautiful people with a Greek-god physique,” said Jim McDonald, the company’s chief marketing officer.

While seeking to lure boomers, the “Build Your Own” campaign features people from a variety of demographics and is careful not to alienate Bally’s younger members.

Gold’s Gyms, the Southern California-based chain that touts its young celebrity clients, also began enlisting older people for ads. Many Gold’s locations also partner with Silver Sneakers, a fitness program offered through health insurers to Medicare recipients.

Started in 1992, Silver Sneakers offers classes that focus on problems caused by aging, such as poor balance and loss of muscular strength.

“One of the barriers we have is getting this population comfortable going into a fitness center,” spokesman David Goodspeed said. “It’s really foreign to them, of another generation.”

The program was offered at 400 fitness centers three years ago; today, it’s in 1,260 centers. Nearly half are YMCAs or similar nonprofits that seniors often feel comfortable with, but more major chains are signing up, Goodspeed said.

“When the gym craze hit 20 years ago, (gyms) were targeting a specific population — the yuppie type,” he said. “Now they’re all coming around and seeing value of having this older population.”

At Gold’s location in Pasadena, Calif., the number of seniors enrolled in Silver Sneakers has doubled in the past five years.

And senior citizens, who are often retired with plenty of leisure time, help fill up a time that is traditionally slow for gyms.

That’s why the bulk of the low-impact classes like chair aerobics are scheduled during work hours at Gold’s Gym, said Dave Reiseman, spokesman for the chain. “It actually works out well for us,” he said. “These two groups can coexist.”

The chain still offers a slew of classes popular with younger demographics, like hip-hop dancing and kickboxing.

But baby boomers are the fastest growing group at gyms as membership among all age groups rises. There were 41.3 million gym members in the United States in 2004, a 35 percent increase from 1999.

Americans are finding themselves with more leisure time for exercise, said Richard Cotton, spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. And as overall gym membership swells, clubs will likely focus on burgeoning niche markets, he said.

Curves, a chain based on a 30-minute circuit workout, has already found success by homing in on women who consider themselves health club novices. Doran is just one of the millions of women who have found their comfort level there. According to the company’s Web site, there are nearly 8,000 Curves locations in the United States.

The popularity of Curves has spawned an industry of similar chains targeting middle-aged and older men and one chain in California tailors its 30-minute workout for families.

Many seniors and baby boomers are flocking to these tailored chains or other low-profile gyms where they feel at ease. Eileen Bates, 43, said that’s why she chose the YMCA when she first joined a gym five years ago.

“There’s no competition,” she said. “People aren’t there to look at what other people are wearing. It’s not a fashion show.”