This past summer, a new, state-of-the-art fitness center opened not far from where I live, and I thought I’d check it out. Only two weeks before, after months of convincing myself that I really needed to get in better physical shape, I joined a small, long-established athletic club in my neighborhood for a reasonable monthly fee, and since then I’ve been working out at least five times a week. I walk the indoor track and work out on the strength-training machines. If I choose, I can use the pool, tennis and racquetball courts, and various cardio machines.
So imagine my curiosity when I received in the mail an invitation to attend the open-house event of a complex described as a “130,000-square-foot resort-like campus.” With a monthly membership that costs 50 percent more than what I currently pay, surely this place must have lots more to offer than my club has for people like me over age 60.
Or so I thought.
The open house was packed with young families, and it didn’t take me long to conclude they were the fitness center’s target demographic. I should have known this from having viewed the company’s website and “Welcome” video, which showed a total of three model-attractive, gray-haired people in its entire marketing materials. Overwhelmingly Caucasian, dressed in stylish gym gear, packing the huge parking lot with minivans and SUVs –– these young couples and their kids were the people heeding the sirens’ song of fun, entertaining, glamorous fitness promised by the sleek, ultramodern, glass-and-chrome facility. It was a classy place, to be sure, and as I walked through the doors, I felt like a diner entering an elegant restaurant for the first time, slightly underdressed, wondering about the prices on the menu, the size of the portions, and whether or not I’d even like the food. By the time I left, it became a place whose offerings I couldn’t digest.
I’m an older adult –– engaged, energetic, enthusiastic, like the vast majority of older adults I know. But in that fitness center, I was invisible. The huge, cathedral-ceiling atrium entry had no natural conversation areas. The multi-waterfall, oak-paneled women’s locker room gleamed with spa-like elegance, but the lockers had combination locks with hard-to-read numbers. The cardio-fitness area was huge and industrial, and the smaller fitness classrooms blared music and were poorly soundproofed. I looked for the indoor track, which is where I imagined I’d spend most of my time as a member. There was none. No place to walk, unless it was on a treadmill among fifty other people on treadmills. About half of the entire square footage of the facility seemed to be devoted to kids: their own pools, outdoor and indoor playgrounds, eating areas, craft rooms. I couldn’t help feeling that, even more than child fitness, the center was concerned with providing baby-sitting services in order to entice their parents to become members.
Maybe I was being idiosyncratic in my tastes. Maybe I was expecting too much, wanting to feel welcomed as someone past the age of midlife. In retrospect, I don’t think so. After all, at my modest athletic club, older adults (people of all ages, in fact) enjoy walking, jogging, and running on the indoor track as well as using the cardio equipment. For many of us older trackers, it’s a place that addresses our need and desire for quality of experience. Being on the track provides a time of casual and familiar interaction, of quiet reflection and mindful meditation; it’s a place to be away from the distracting action of rows of people running in place on machines, watching plasma TVs, and the feeling engendered by that atmosphere of being a nameless person among a crowd of nameless others.
I learned at the open house that the center offered a book club (the promotional photos showed people in their 30s and 40s), and a “Club for Moms.” Wanting to find out about the environmental elements tailored to boomers and other older adults, I sought out the activities director, a very genial 30-something woman handing out brochures. I introduced myself and asked about design issues of concern to those like me: seating that encourages comfort and socialization, workout areas free of mindless media and distracting noise. “Boomers? Older adults?” she replied. “Well, no…we don’t have anything specifically geared for them.” I pointed out the lack of an indoor track and explained that it’s more than an amenity to many elders (and people of all ages with disabilities) seeking fitness; it’s a necessity. She pondered: “You know, we never even thought of that in our planning.”
Ageism is everywhere. It pervades our perceptions of who older adults are, and we have become comfortable allowing those lazy, unexercised perceptions to limit the ways we could and should move toward fairness and inclusivity regarding our elders. It’s ironic that none of the time, effort, and monetary investment made in having built a 130,000-square-foot, gleaming, “resort-like campus” was spent on considering the needs of the very people who, economists continually point out, hold 75 percent ($30 trillion) of our nation’s wealth and spend about $3 trillion annually, not to mention that 10,000 of them are turning 65 every day. It’s more than ironic. It’s downright financially suicidal.
Unless the developers of fitness facilities accommodate older adults, not as a boutique population but as a core market for their services, it won’t be many years before their state-of-the-art complexes won’t be very fit at all.