In the health and fitness sector, we celebrate those who are active into later life and praise the strength and wellbeing achieved by many. Yet, there exists a phenomenon that often operates subtly, and its influence is widespread and deeply ingrained: ageism.

Ageism subtly permeates our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours, shaping our interactions with older adults in ways we may not always recognise. Despite its quiet presence, ageism holds significant implications for the wellbeing and inclusivity of our fitness spaces.
1 in 2 people are ageist against older people (WHO, 2024) 

As professionals dedicated to promoting health and wellness, we should examine our beliefs and behaviours, ensuring we are not inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes or biases against older adults.

Let’s explore how ageism and stereotyping may manifest in our interactions with older clients, and how we can actively work to dismantle these harmful attitudes.

Understanding Ageism:

Ageism encompasses a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours that affect how we perceive and interact with individuals of different ages. As defined by the World Health Organisation, ageism refers to stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age. (Source WHO)

Stereotypes:

Stereotypes are deeply ingrained beliefs or assumptions about a particular group of people. In the context of older adults, common stereotypes include perceptions of decline in physical and cognitive abilities, diminished vitality, and resistance to change. As fitness professionals, it’s crucial to recognise when these stereotypes influence our perceptions and interactions with older clients.

Consider the following examples:

Thoughts: Assuming that older adults are not capable of engaging in high-intensity workouts or resistance training due to their age.
Statements: “You might find this exercise too challenging at your age.”
Behaviours: Providing modified or simplified workouts without considering individual capabilities and preferences.

Prejudice:

Prejudice involves preconceived feelings or attitudes towards a particular group, often stemming from stereotypes. In fitness, prejudice against older adults may manifest as a lack of enthusiasm or investment in their fitness goals or a belief that they are not as deserving of attention and support as younger clients.

Consider the following examples:

Feelings: Feeling impatient or dismissive when working with older clients, assuming they won’t be as committed or capable as younger ones.
Attitudes: Believing that older adults are resistant to change or unwilling to try new exercises, leading to reluctance to introduce new routines or techniques.
Interactions: Offering less encouragement or support during workouts with older clients compared to younger ones.

Discrimination:

Discrimination involves actions or behaviours that result in unfair treatment of individuals based on their age. In the fitness industry, discrimination against older adults can take various forms, including limited access to certain programs or facilities, unequal opportunities for advancement or recognition, and neglect of their unique needs and preferences.

Consider the following examples:

Actions: Restricting older clients to specific workout areas or equipment, segregating them from other gym-goers.
Policies: Implementing age-based restrictions or requirements for participation in fitness classes or programs.
Communication: Using language or terminology that reinforces ageist attitudes, such as referring to older adults as “fragile” or “senior citizens.”

Taking Action

Now you have an awareness and understanding of ageism, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, you can take proactive steps to create more inclusive and supportive environments for older adults. Here are some practical strategies to consider:

Be Aware: Bring an awareness to your own beliefs, attitudes, and ways in which you interact with a variety of ages. Be aware in your coming sessions.

Challenge Your Assumptions: Question any stereotypes or biases you may hold, and actively challenge them in your interactions and programming.

Individualise Programmes and Approaches: Recognise the diversity within the older adult population. Treat each client as an individual with unique needs, preferences, and abilities. Avoid making assumptions based on age and instead focus on tailoring your approach to meet the specific goals and capabilities of each individual. We tend to refer to this as someone’s stage of life.

Language Matters: Be mindful of the language you use when communicating with older adults. Avoid ageist language and stereotypes, and instead use respectful and empowering language that acknowledges their strengths and capabilities.

Education and Training: Seek out opportunities for education and training on age-related issues and best practices for working with older adults. Stay informed about the latest research and recommendations in the field. We have an Embedding Inclusive Exercise into Mid-Later Life Training that supports this.

Promote Inclusivity: Create fitness environments that are welcoming and inclusive for individuals of all ages. Ensure that your facility and programming are accessible and accommodating to older adults, and actively promote diversity and inclusivity in your marketing and outreach efforts.

Advocate for Change: Speak out against ageism and advocate for policies and practices that promote equality and inclusion for older adults in the fitness industry. Use your platform and influence to raise awareness and drive positive change within your community and beyond.

Our training on Embedding Inclusive Exercise into Mid-Later Life Training will support you with ensuring you create and market inclusive environments.

Also, you can take a quiz here to find out if you are ageist – from a recent campaign.

Summary:

In conclusion, ageism is a pervasive yet often overlooked issue within the fitness industry, with profound implications for the well-being and inclusivity of older adults. By understanding and addressing ageism, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, fitness professionals can play an important role in creating more fair and enjoyable fitness spaces for individuals of all ages. Through self-reflection, education, and proactive action, we can work together to challenge ageist attitudes and build a future where everyone, regardless of age, feels valued, respected, and supported on their fitness journey.