Bridging the Gap

When Paul Bruni, the former owner of Long Island, NY-based Personal Training Studio, hired a 68-year-old personal trainer, his partners thought he was out of his mind. Six years later, that trainer, 74-year-old retired business owner Larry Keating, has become one of the top trainers at the club, which is now owned by Craig Hatchett.

More than one-third of Bruni's 200 clients are seniors, and hiring trainers who mirror the clients' ages and interests is good for business, he says. Many health clubs and personal training studios sell themselves short by not having mature trainers on staff, Bruni says.

“You're not serving the public or being a smart business person if you don't have a senior trainer,” he says. “Some older people don't feel comfortable with younger trainers. By having Larry on staff, I was able to get business I would have never been able to get before.”

Bruni plans to hire more senior personal trainers for his two existing studios and his third location, which will open soon. Fitness centers often intimidate older adults who aren't accustomed to exercising, and senior members often relate better to older trainers with similar life experiences, he says. Other fitness facilities, such as New York Sports Clubs in Manhattan, NY; Gold's Gym in Latham, NY; and Mentor Heisley Racquet and Fitness in Mentor, OH, are also hiring middle-aged and senior personal trainers to meet their older clients' needs and cater to Baby Boomers, who often have disposable incomes and are looking for ways to keep fit and stay healthy.

“There's a huge clientele who don't feel comfortable training with someone who is their granddaughter's age,” says Tia Ahmadi, fitness training manager for Gold's Gym in Latham, NY, which employs six trainers including one woman in her 50s. “Having someone of a similar age and knowledge really puts them at ease.”

Older adults becoming certified as personal trainers is a growing trend, according to the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA), which educates trainers on how to work with seniors. About one-third of the personal trainers who have become certified through the program are over the age of 55, says Grant Clark, director of member services and vice president of the SFA. Trainers pay $300 for the self-paced course, which often takes between two and six months to complete.

“I think the number of senior personal trainers will increase because of the number of people taking early retirement,” he says. “Seventy five million Americans will turn 60 this year, and a lot of them will become trainers or clients.”

Lifetime of Experience

Many senior trainers view personal training as a lucrative second career and an opportunity for them to stay in shape and fuel their passion for fitness. Take, for example, Cary Raffle, a master trainer at New York Sports Clubs' Wall Street location in New York City. After working in the advertising business for 30 years, his business began to wind down, and he looked for a new business opportunity.

“What appealed to me was to leave management and get into a business where my success or failure depended more on my own skill and ability than on others,” he says. “I explored consulting, but it was too solitary. I enjoyed the time I spent at the gym, so I tried out personal training part-time and after three or four months, I learned I could be successful at it, and I became fully committed.”

The 49-year-old became certified as a personal trainer, earned a specialty certification in prenatal and postnatal personal training and is now working toward his master's degree in exercise science at the California University of Pennsylvania. When he applied for a personal training position at the New York Sports Club, the fitness manager, who is now a district manager, practically jumped across the desk to hire him, he says.

“She didn't know my age, but she knew I was older than the typical trainer,” he says. “She said, ‘I know you're serious, articulate and owned your own business. You're going to do well.’”

Raffle now has more than 40 clients, and while some of them are in their 20s, the majority of them are between the ages of 35 and 54. Baby Boomers often feel comfortable with Raffle because of his experience in the business world.

“We can relate to each other, and I understand where they're coming from,” he says. “I've been in the office next door and managed to stay fit. Because I ran my own small business, I know how to deal with people.”

While some club owners may think older trainers won't be able to keep up with technology, that isn't the case with Raffle, who sends out a monthly e-newsletter and maintains a Web log. He envisions a day when more middle-aged and senior personal trainers will be a staple at health clubs nationwide.

“As the clients are changing, I think the profile of the typical fitness trainer will change as well,” he says. “As the club members have gotten older, more affluent and more sophisticated, they'll want a higher level of expertise from their trainers.”

While older trainers have a lot of experience, however, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are well versed in the fitness industry, says Dr. Debra Rose of California State University-Fullerton, which offers an academic track on fitness for older adults. She has concerns about individuals who come from a completely different profession and become a personal trainer due to an interest in fitness.

“There's no substitute for strong, academic education,” says Rose, the co-director of the Center for Successful Aging, a 6,500-square-foot wellness center. “I applaud a person's interest in moving into a new profession, but I still think they need appropriate skills and a knowledge of anatomy and physiology to become a personal trainer.”

Senior Sessions

While some senior personal trainers are new to the fitness industry, others have spent a majority of their entire careers working at health clubs. Eighteen years ago, Mentor Heisley Racquet and Fitness in Ohio hired Pat Granito, an aerobics teacher and mother of four sons, to work in the weight room. Two years later, she began training a group of seniors, some of whom are still with her today. At 7:30 a.m. three days a week, 13 seniors, ranging in age from 67 to 81, visit the gym to drink coffee, lift weights on the children's circuit training machines, exercise in the pool, and perform many other activities to improve their independence and fitness level. Rather than training the seniors one-on-one, Granito offers group training.

“Seniors have a fixed income, and a personal training session at my club costs $40,” says Granito, who will turn 65 this year. “If they paid for their $40 monthly membership and did an extra personal training session, it would really start to add up.”

Granito works as a personal trainer to help senior members benefit from exercise rather than to pull in a big paycheck.

“I think they can all relate to me rather than someone who is really young,” says Granito, who works with 11 other personal trainers who are mostly in their 40s. “[The seniors] call me the baby, and I'll be 65 this year. Every time I think about quitting, the seniors ask me when I'm coming back. It's almost like they won't let me retire.”

Forever Young

Just because a club has an older trainer on board doesn't mean that younger trainers are “off the hook” when it comes to working with seniors. All of the personal trainers — regardless of age — must work together to create a senior-friendly environment in a health club, says Sandy Coffman, owner and president of Programming for Profit, a training and consulting firm in Bradenton, FL.

“I would caution club owners to not hire the older trainer and then expect the owner or the rest of the staff not to work just as hard to make that generation feel comfortable in the club,” Coffman says. “I'm afraid in some cases, this may happen.”

Older trainers can also be intimidating to some deconditioned senior members, she says.

“[Seniors] love the energy of the younger trainers, and it makes them feel younger when they're at the club,” says Coffman. “When people age, they often feel 20 years younger than they actually are. The problem is that there aren't enough young people that care to be as patient with the first-time older adult.”

In addition, senior trainers shouldn't be given only senior clients.

Bruni assigned his 74-year-old trainer, Keating, sessions working just with senior members during their first free visit to the personal training studio. As Keating gained more confidence and experience, Bruni eventually asked him to work with the facility's younger and middle-aged clients as well.

“He has the opportunity to show people what he's got,” Bruni says. “Younger clients may see an older trainer and think that this guy can't possibly take care of me. If they give him a chance, they'll see he's as qualified and competent as any of our other trainers.”

As more Baby Boomers and older adults sign up for memberships at health clubs nationwide, more fitness facilities may consider hiring trainers with a lifetime of experience, an intimate knowledge of the aging process and the ability to see eye to eye with their older clients. By having 74-year-old Keating on his personal training staff, Bruni says he's never lost any business, instead he's opened the door to a wave of new clientele.

“I would hire a lot more mature personal trainers if I had the chance,” Bruni says. “They're very responsible, never late, very experienced and bring a lot to the table.”

Three Tips for Hiring Older Adults as Personal Trainers

  1. Talk to senior members of your club about becoming certified as personal trainers. These members are already committed to your facility, stay in shape and would serve as good examples to other members.

  2. Don't hire a personal trainer based on age, but rather on his or her qualifications and certifications.

  3. Hire a blend of young, middle-aged and senior trainers to make all your members feel welcome at your fitness facility. By having too many senior trainers on your staff, you may turn off certain clients.

Manufacturers of Strength-Training Equipment for Seniors

Visit the Web site for the International Council on Active Aging at for a list of additional manufacturers of senior-friendly, strength-training equipment.