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How to Choose a Health Club

It takes some legwork to find the right gym for you.

When Abe Cohen retired from his job with an electronics company, his son bought him a gym membership. Abe’s peers were aghast. “They told me, ‘What are you joining a gym for? Gyms are for kids,’” Abe recalls.

That was 1976. Abe, who celebrated his 97th birthday on Feb. 8, is still going to the same gym. And while he may be the oldest member at Bally Total Fitness in Bay Shore, N.Y., he’s no longer the only one there on the far side of 50. The same factors that have kept Abe and his wife, Esther, 90, coming back—the camaraderie, the variety of equipment and facilities—are now attracting other older adults to health clubs.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the number of gym members 55 and older has soared from 1.5 million in 1987 to 8.5 million in 2006—making it the fastest-growing segment of the health club population. Like the Cohens, older adults who join gyms really use them. Of people who go to them regularly (at least 100 days a year), one of every four is 55 and over.

Of course some gyms are friendlier to older clientele than others. How do you find one that’s right for you? “Shop around,” suggests exercise physiologist Arthur Weltman of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Go to various fitness facilities in your community, take a tour, see what they offer.”

The gym environment has come a long way since the days of bodybuilder Vic Tanny and the health clubs he founded from the 1930s to 1950s. An increasing number of the country’s 29,000 fitness facilities are now offering equipment and programming aimed less at the spandex-and-tattoo crowd and more toward people more comfortable in sweats. “This is an industry that’s about filling niche markets,” says Joe Moore, president of IHRSA. “And club owners realize older adults are a big niche.”

To that end, more clubs are likely to have such over-age-50-friendly equipment as recumbent stationary bikes (easier for those with weight or orthopedic issues) and strength-training machines on which the weights can be increased in smaller increments; classes in yoga, tai chi, balance training or ballroom dancing; and pools for aquatic exercise.

To find a gym that’s right for you, take a tour of facilities in your area. Aside from assessing activities and amenities, consider the following:

  • Stay local: Studies have shown you’re more likely to use a club that’s convenient to your home or place of work.
  • Visit when you’ll most likely use it: That way, you can gauge the wait times for the machines and the size of the classes. (Many clubs offer senior-specific programming during this the otherwise quiet, 9-to-noon period).

  • Take it for a spin: Most clubs offer free day or week passes to prospective members. Take advantage of this offer to to gauge your comfort level there.

  • Check for special senior rates: Membership fees can range from $25 to several hundred dollars a month. Hank Williford, a physical education professor at Alabama’s Auburn University at Montgomery, recommends avoiding long-term contracts that lock members in for extended periods of time. “You should be able to drop your membership at any time,” he says.

  • Expect an orientation by a personal trainer: New members usually get free one-time instruction on using the equipment and weights and their exercise program. Orientation should include the oft-overlooked basics, such as finding the “on” and “off” buttons on the treadmill.

  • Inspect the facilities: Is the club well maintained? Are staff members friendly and helpful?

For those with medical conditions, Williford recommends a fitness program affiliated with a local hospital, university fitness center or YMCA. He points out, too, that more and more commercial gyms are also offering programs for people with arthritis or heart conditions.

Although you can exercise at home, nothing beats a gym for putting together a complete fitness program—not to mention the new friends you can make while breaking a sweat. After 31 years, that’s what keeps the Cohens coming back to the gym every day.

“I look forward to going and seeing the people we know,” Abe says. “They’re like family.” And in health clubs, that’s a family that’s growing older.