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10 Tips for Leading Highly Engaging Senior Fitness Classes, part 1

If anything defines the current senior fitness industry, it’s these two trends:

  1. The number of seniors is climbing upward — the Census Bureau has noted that the amount of people age 65 or older will double within the next few decades.
  2. Many of those seniors are becoming deeply interested in taking charge of their healthleading to a surge in over-age-50 gym memberships and classes.

That means the demand for senior fitness experts has never been greater. And it's about to become an even more opportunity-laden specialty.

Fitness Classes Fulfill Physical and Social Wellbeing

Social wellbeing is a crucial part of active aging and whole person health. People with a strong social network have been shown to live longer, enjoy better physical health, and have healthier minds.

Humans are social creatures, with a strong desire throughout their lives to seek out and connect with other people. This desire for human connection does not weaken as we age. In fact, for many seniors, the need to create and maintain strong social connections intensifies as the years go by.

For senior fitness instructors who understand that physical activity supports whole person health and cannot be separated from mental, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing, fitness classes that successfully pull people together are an excellent way for seniors to care for their physical, mental and social health.

In fact, classes and programs that encourage consistent visits to a fitness center are particularly effective in building social connections because they encourage socialization on a routine basis, often with the same people.

So how do you do it?

How can fitness instructors create the best possible classes for seniors?

1. Be prepared and know your stuff.

It might be obvious, but knowledge and preparation are foundational to every other strategy for creating engaging fitness classes for seniors. Preparation means engaging in ongoing education and knowing how to translate new information into classes. It means knowing the how’s and why’s behind what you teach. And, it means having a blueprint for every class to ensure it will run smoothly.

For classes that include diverse movements designed to build whole body health, formulate a plan for how seniors will transition from one move to the next. This is easiest when you’re clear on WHY you’ve selected each exercise and HOW one exercise supports another.

If you show up for a class without a clearly thought out plan, Seniors might be kind for a class or two, but they won’t stick around if the class doesn’t meet their needs. Don’t underestimate their ability to be interested, engaged and motivated – if you are.

Bring your best to every class and they will too.

2. Love what you teach, and fake it when necessary.

There is a lot of pressure these days for trainers and fitness instructors to keep up with the latest fads. Unfortunately, if you jump into teaching techniques and formats that are beyond your current knowledge base, you’re bound to struggle with confidence and enthusiasm.

The same is true for trying to instruct in a style that doesn’t align with who you really are. If your personality is gentle, supportive, and subdued, you’ll probably never be successful as a boisterous boot camp “drill sergeant”. As much as possible, stay aligned with your strengths, passions, and knowledge.  

Having said that, there are times when you have to teach a class and are not feeling 100% confident about it. It might be unfair, but nervousness and uncertainty can often make class participants overly critical. They are there to rely on your expertise. If they feel you’re lacking in the knowledge and ability to teach a class, they might not be afraid to let you know.

While genuine fitness knowledge or expertise is not something that should be faked, there are times when faking your level of confidence is in everyone’s best interest. Doing so can help you win over discerning participants who expect only the best. Regardless of how you’re actually feeling, create the impression that you are calm, cool and collected. When you show confidence in yourself, your participants are more likely to have confidence in you, as well.      

3. If you’re new to them, or if they’re new to you, manage first impressions.

The first five minutes or so of a group fitness class can really set the stage for the entire workout. Yet, group fitness instructors often miss the opportunity to make a stellar first impression in those first few minutes.

Don’t hold back until the middle of class to showcase your leadership and motivational skills. Start every class with the level of energy and enthusiasm you want participants to remember when they leave. Set the tone from the beginning and assert your ability to maintain energy from start to finish.

4. Command their attention through group communication skills.

Communicating to a group is vastly different from communicating in a one-on-one situation like personal training. Three effective techniques for commanding attention through group communication skills are:

  1. Use large, animated body movements and gestures to show participants what you want them to do and which direction you want them to go. Make arm movements strong and precise, from your core through your fingertips.
  2. Facial expressions can create a powerful impression about your level of confidence. Your class will respond much better to an encouraging smile than a concentrate scowl.
  3. Speak loudly, using a friendly but commanding voice. To help engage the entire group, address the people at the back of the crowd, not just those who are directly in front of you.  

Get to know your class participants.

In every ongoing class, it’s important to identify your allies and accept that not everyone will like you.

Every senior fitness class is full of fascinating people with a lifetime of unique experiences. In your class, you likely have people who have led extraordinary careers, published books or sold works of art, traveled the world, forged new paths or inspired new ways of thinking.

Be authentically interested in their lives: past, present and future. Our ability to know when someone is genuinely interested in us doesn’t fade with age. If anything, it probably gets more precise.

This can be difficult to do when teaching classes that includes a constant influx of new faces. Even then, there are likely to be at least a handful of regular participants. Consider them your allies. Most of your regulars are regulars because of you! Look to their familiar faces to help boost your confidence as you teach.  

On the other hand, not everyone will like you, your style, or the class. The fact that you can’t please everyone all the time is a fact of life we’re all familiar with, and yet, it can really shake your confidence. In general, you’ll be more successful when you stop trying to win over those who don’t connect with you and focus on those seniors who enjoy and appreciate your classes and teaching style.

Click here for 5 more tips for Leading Engaging Senior Fitness Classes.