The Reimagining Ageing report highlights the importance of physical activity in older adults and the role of the fitness sector

The UK has a physical inactivity epidemic that is cutting the lives of older people tragically short, says a new report. The fitness sector is perfectly placed to get our rapidly ageing population moving.

Misconceptions about health and fitness in old age

Many of us hold views dangerous to long term health, says Steven Ward CEO of ukactive, the body behind the Reimagining Ageing report, produced with DataHub and Sheffield Hallam University. Most of us are resigned to the fact that our later years will bring a loss of function and decreased mobility, that exercise becomes less appropriate the more we age and may even worsen our health conditions.

The report argues that far from slowing down, we should be ramping up as we enter our twilight years. Sir Muir Gray, chief knowledge officer of the NHS, says: “We have clear evidence that ageing by itself is not a cause of major problems until the mid-nineties. Physical activity is vital to ensure older populations lead long, healthy and independent lives.”

Facts and figures

  • By 2030 it’s estimated the number of UK people aged 60 or more will reach 20 million, up 31 per cent from today’s figure (15.3 million).
  • Approximately 38 per cent of over 55s are classed as ‘inactive’, despite figures showing inactivity reduces lifespan by as much as five years.
  • Nearly half of people aged 75-84 are inactive.
  • Nearly 71 per cent of people aged 85 and over are inactive.
  • People aged over 55 currently account for 36 per cent of the population, yet only one in five members of public leisure facilities falls within this bracket.
  • Usage rates of those aged over 65 fall lower still, accounting for just nine per cent of visits

Market intelligence

DataHub has collected data from more than 500 million individual visits to more than 2,000 facilities that throws light on the lifestyles, activity habits and buying preferences of older consumers.

Utku Toprakseven, director of sports intelligence at 4global, which manages DataHub, says “Success in these interventions lies in understanding what our ageing population actually wants and putting that information at the fingertips of decision makers. Take programming. Our figures show 90 per cent of the visits by people over 65 take place during the week, with almost half occurring between 9am and 12pm, so numerous facilities could more effectively target this cohort to fill spare capacity, with a potential to scale. But further consultation is needed with academic experts, physical activity providers and older people themselves – to identify how organisations can further tailor their offering.”

We need a cultural transformation

Older people are disengaged from the fitness sector yet they hold 70 per cent of the nation’s wealth, spending £320bn in 2017. “They represent an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. Their perceptions towards ageing need to change and we the fitness sector need to transform our facilities, products, services, programmes and expertise” says Ward.

Creating an infrastructure

Sport England and ukactive are transforming ageing leisure stock into community-focused Wellness Hubs that integrate swimming pools, gyms and multi-sport facilities with GP drop-in centres, rehabilitation services, libraries and police stations on one site. Reimagining Ageing recommends a national roll-out of these inclusive and welcoming physical activity experiences.

Training for exercise professionals

The report calls for better support and training for exercise professionals, to enable them to work confidently with older adults, with an army of older fitness instructors leading the way.

Ward says “CIMSPA’s Labour Market Intelligence Report reveals the average age of those working in the sector is 38. We want the government to support older people by making it easier and more affordable to retrain as fitness instructors or sports coaches.”

Activity Therapy Service

The report proposes a locally-owned ‘Activity Therapy’ service, developed with healthcare professionals, volunteer services and the physical activity sector. These services would embed the physical activity sector throughout every relevant care pathway of the NHS and provide a framework for a range of evidence-based exercise schemes to be delivered across the UK.

Active workplaces

Reimagining Ageing recommends working more closely with businesses to create active workplaces that build exercise into the working day. This will have a big impact because people are increasingly working longer and research shows frailty and pre-frailty is increasing in people of working age; pre-frailty occurs in a third of British adults aged 50-65. Both are preventable and can be improved by increased fitness.

The report proposes bringing together fitness sector leaders, companies and stakeholders such as the CBI and Institute of Directors to discuss the barriers to building an active workplace and to share best practice.

Swim England’s Water Wellbeing programme

Duane Newton, health and wellbeing manager at Swim England explains “Our three-year Dementia Friendly Swimming Project showed us how leisure centres challenge older people and those with long-term health conditions. They can be busy and noisy, with strange gym and pool smells as well as varying light levels and both wet and dry flooring.”

So they have produced an environmental checklist that enable leisure providers to create a simpler, more friendly swimming experience - from the person’s arrival in reception, through to the changing areas, toilets, showers and the pool. The checklist often leads to changes such as improved signage, simpler lockers, extra seats, more grab rails in changing areas and toilets and additional poolside hooks.

Serving an older demographic at Wellington Health and Fitness Club

Wellington Health and Fitness Club have a substantial older demographic and the safety of them and staff serving them is crucial. Ian Davis, commercial manager of Wellington College Enterprises, which manages the club explains “Activity plays a vital part of their week and their overall wellbeing. Some members are no longer very mobile, have the onset of dementia, struggle getting on and off the kit and remembering which piece to use next. We owe them a duty of care, as well as to our other members and staff, who could also be injured if they were to fall”.

Berkshire Health Authority’s Community Mental Health Team has helped staff identify early signs of dementia and how to deal with it, but Davis has struggled to find other suitable training.

Over half of Wellington Health and Fitness Club’s 2,500 private members are over 50, with 820 of those aged 59-79 and 136 aged 80-95. The club’s 50+ group, ‘The Invincibles’, has 490 members who meet three times a week to exercise and socialise. 

Wellington College will continue to use the Precor equipment it has had for over 15 years. “The Invincibles are familiar with it and the consoles and equipment are intuitive and easy for them to use,” says Davis. The same Precor console is used across the club’s CV equipment making it straight forward when changing between the treadmill, bike, EFX and Adaptive Motion Trainer.

eGym evidence success

Strength training has been proven to tackle some of the major conditions affecting seniors from dementia to diabetes from osteoporosis to a reduction in muscle mass. eGym is evidencing high usage levels among this demographic as well as significant improvements in physical health. eGym provides a technology driven, intuitive, motivating, automated system which delivers a progressive, full body workout in 30 minutes.

In 2017, Broxbourne Borough Council invested in a nine-piece eGym circuit at the Laura Trott Leisure Centre. Today, more than 240 members aged 51 and over are using eGym with an average monthly attendance of 5.5 eGym sessions.

Data collated from regular single repetition strength tests has also evidenced that, on average, regular eGym users benefit from a 14 per cent improvement in strength with those aged 70 to 90 showing a nine per cent improvement.

The Milon Circle deliver personalised training experiences

The Milon Circle comprises six electronic strength machines and six pieces of cardiovascular equipment. It appeals to market segments currently disenfranchised by much of what the sector has to offer.

Studies show that the average age of a Milon client is 52 years old, with over 65s making up at least 25 per cent of the total membership. Research by University College Dublin on the Milon Circle concluded that a combined resistance and aerobic exercise programme is more effective in improving physical function in older adults than resistance or aerobic alone.

Occupying as little space as 50sq m, the Milon Circle has been installed in leisure centres, health clubs, boutique studios and rehabilitation facilities in the UK and Ireland.

The equipment has automatic settings for the seat and level positions, range of motion and advanced training protocols that include eccentric, adaptive and isokientic options deliver a total body work out in 35 minutes.

The Milon Circle at Places for People’s Graves Sports Centre in Sheffield meets the needs of ageing and de- conditioned market, says CEO, John Oxley.

Life Fitness promote activity in retirement

THE Audley Group commissioned Life Fitness to design bespoke gyms at its 19 retirement villages encouraging owners to live independent and healthy lives.

Owners are supported by a team of health and leisure staff, all of whom are trained by the Life Fitness Academy about how to incorporate equipment into workouts, whilst creating positive experiences for all users including harder to engage owners.

Products from the SCIFIT range form the core provision at each site. These include the REX Total Body Recumbent Elliptical, which provides a total body workout with a smooth, natural knee movement replicating climbing stairs - useful for owners with problematic knee joints or mobility problems.

For those more physically able, the SCIFIT SXT7000 Total Body Elliptical training delivers a natural total body movement that creates a true-to-life, natural walking motion with Bio-Flex footbeds that improve foot and ankle circulation.

Also installed is equipment from both Life Fitness and Cybex, including treadmills, upright exercise bikes, rowers and functional training equipment.