Teaching classes for active older adults has unique challenges, and fitness instructors who currently teach, or are considering expanding into teaching older adult and senior fitness classes should keep a few things in mind, or contemplate thoroughly before taking the leap. Here we share 10 tips for leading successful active older adult group fitness classes.
Originally published March 2017
I never intended to be a fitness instructor—I was a happy Nia® consumer, until it struck me that teaching Nia tailored for Seniors would be a reason to become a Nia teacher. Then I attended an Ageless Grace® Certification with Denise Medved, who demonstrates, in every moment, engaging and empowering Seniors. Her classes are fun, energetic seated movement for all levels of ability, disability, health, and decline.
With those two experiences I forged ahead and am currently teaching 8-10 fitness classes/week and the average age over all of my classes is around 82 years. Dick just turned 97 last week, and comes to 2 classes/week, so he’s pulling the average up!
With this experience, here are my top 10 tips for fitness instructors who currently teach, or are considering expanding into teaching seniors –
1. There’s no bluffing the older crowd.
Know your stuff. Take the training. Seniors might be kind for a class or two, but they will complain loudly to your management or disappear if you don’t teach a class they enjoy and that is pertinent to their needs. Don’t underestimate their ability to be interested, engaged and motivated. They will surprise you. Bring your best to every class.
2. Remind participants that they are in control of their exercise.
If there is a reason/ situation/ condition that prohibits a movement, then empower them to make that determination and corrective adjustments if needed. I encourage a lot, push them to do a lot, and back off readily. They’re in charge, you’re not.
3. Get to know them.
Seniors are fascinating people. They have experienced times and events that happened before our lifetimes, have had extraordinary careers, published books, sold pieces of art to the UN, were the first woman admitted to a certain college or university and many other wildly interesting things. Be authentically interested in their lives: past, present and future. If you’re faking it they will know it in an instant. (Remember, no bluffing!)
4. Ask them about their reason for coming.
Questions like, what do you want to get out of this class? What is your goal for this year of exercise class? What fun exciting plans do you have coming up? Some responses from my classes –
- I want to be able to plant and harvest my garden this year. (“How big is your garden? And what are you planting?”)
- I want to keep living on my own, in my house (age 87).
- I’ve signed up for a birding expedition in Panama and need to be able to walk 2 miles to see the Harpy Eagle’s nest.
- It might be 105 degrees.
- I want to be able to saddle and ride my own horse again this summer. (It had been 5 years. Yes, she did!)
- I want to be healthy enough to go to Israel for a month. (Just out of the hospital from a cardiac embolism.)
- I’m considering a knee (or hip!) replacement and want to see if I can avoid it, or be able to rehab quickly if I do it.
- I’d really like to go down that slide into the pool. (We did it that day!)
Some will not participate with the questions. Encourage them to think toward the future. Some of them will resist, some of them dare not as they believe their time is short. Try anyway–research shows that making plans for something enjoyable in the future is key to getting extra years from good healthcare. (This is a great article)
5. Teach exercises that will improve their functionality.
My job, and your job, is to maintain or improve their mobility, strength and stability so they can do the things they need and want to do. Unlike a fitness class for a younger crowd, it’s not preparation for a competition, marathon, or to be able to out-do others in the class. Their needs and desires are seriously practical and vital to their health, longevity and quality of life. Let them inform your class designs.
My regulars tease that I’m giving them a hard time, and sometimes call me a taskmaster. They also thank me profusely for teaching them something that makes a difference to their posture, and any painful areas we can go to work on.
6. Focus on Technique
It’s not always enough to demonstrate, cue and count without providing clarification to help them target the right muscles. Like all athletes, technique is key to the desired results. As we go through our workouts, I also call out the exercises they can do at home in their la-z-boy (toe squeezes and ankle circles), or in bed (a few stretches), or every time they go by a mirror (a particular one we do that works on straight elbows), or a little dance in the kitchen while making dinner, and remind them to do so.
As an example, I had a participant in a Warm Water Fitness class who was moving along just fine, but incorrect form meant she was not getting the strengthening benefit in her quads. With each of my suggestions she responded and experienced the difference it made, while I asked her, “How does that feel?” And I listened to her response. When she “got it” she was thrilled! Three months later her doctor was amazed at the things she could do in spite of the condition of her knees. Had we not corrected her technique, the result may have been very different.
7. Slow it down. Use repetition. Simplify. Break it down.
This is where your training is imperative. When a participant is moving but not executing the move correctly, it may indicate a misunderstanding, or a physical imbalance or injury. We must understand if that issue is something we need to clarify in our cuing, or in their execution of the move, or to leave it alone. Their technique may be a symptom of the issue OR the technique may be exacerbating the issue.
This is the process I use:
- Inquire. Ask them where they are feeling the work; if they have pain; or if it’s okay to get their hair wet (Yes, their priorities are important!).
- Listen. This is the most important piece. As instructors it is easy to assess and come up with an answer that does not include the participant’s experience of their own body, nor their input.
- Ask Permission. Some of my participants do not want technical input, others welcome it. Coaching only works if there is a request preceding it.
- Use your knowledge. Incrementally break down the movement, based on their answers.
- Suggest an incremental corrective approach. Don’t overwhelm them at once, provide small cues for correction, then repeat.
- “Try looking at the stripe on the wall while you do it”…(instead of down at toes.)
- “Try both arms out at 45 degrees, hands open with palms forward”…
- “Now, Sit back in a comfy chair and keep moving backwards. Trust the water to hold you up” .
8. Acknowledge & Celebrate with authentic enthusiasm.
Appreciate their accomplishment and efforts, even if they didn’t quite get it this time. “Good work, We’ll get there” are reassuring acknowledgements and commitments.
9. Adjust your cues & music.
Music should be low enough that most participants can also hear most of your verbal cues. A microphone is essential. For many Seniors, hearing is waning and they will rely heavily on your visual cues too, so work on perfecting your visual cues! If you can, demonstrate by being a full-on participant. Often if I discontinue the movement they will follow suit and just stop in their tracks…the visual cues are often their only connection to what is being taught. Remove background noise to the extent you can (ask the janitor to vacuum elsewhere during class, close the door.)
10. And finally, don’t hesitate to mix up the music!
Sure, Seniors like some of the oldies from their generation, but I find that if they go to a lot of classes each week they are tired of the Big Band, and Golden Oldies. Dance tunes from any generation are always good, and throw in some Adele, Nickel Creek, Andra Day, Dierks Bentley, and country. You’ll be surprised at how they come alive and appreciate the change!
There are many training programs that will prepare you for teaching but the most important quality to bring to class is enjoying and loving this population. If Seniors are the right market for you, you’ll find them interesting, fascinating, inspiring, and heartwarming.