Tips for teaching fitness classes for older adults

In the gym where I work, the age distribution of gym-goers and fitness class participants tends to change at the end of the summer. High school and university students head back to school and older adults (who may stay away from the gym when it’s dominated by testosterone-fuelled young males…) make up a larger proportion of exercisers.

My friend and colleague, Alexandra of the blog FunandFit is an experienced and beloved instructor of fitness classes for older adults. Today, she shares her tips for teaching these older (and often much wiser!) participants.

Thanks for sharing, Alexandra!

How do you make the transition from teaching standard classes that are geared toward any age to designing and leading fitness classes for older adults? Can you simply use the skills you already have? Use the following lists to determine what you need to add to your repertoire of skills in order to teach this burgeoning market.

Program Design

Know your participants. In many of the standard fitness programs offered in clubs today, the class descriptions are so specific that participants know what to expect before they enter the room. Make sure this is the case.

  • Find out what types of exercise they do and don’t  like.
  • Determine what they hope to gain from the class.
  • Stay flexible; be ready to change or modify moves.
  • Be aware of goals not related to physical conditioning; social interaction is an important desire for many participants.
  • Keep It Safe and Simple (KISS): You can provide a great workout just by walking in squares, triangles, circles, lines and squares. Basic moves work well in this format and help with injury prevention.
  • Think “Good, Better, Best”; the best movement choice is one that everyone can perform well and that is easy on the joints. And be careful about sudden direction changes so that you decrease the potential for falls.
  • Plan for longevity; this group of loyal participants will stay with you for years, so plan moves they can perform and perfect for years to come.
  • Incorporate exercises that mimic or assist with the activities of daily living; for example, squats help people get in and out of chairs.
  • Ask for feedback from the group.
  • Remember that choreography isn’t the goal; improved health is.

Movement & Cuing

Most of your older participants will probably attend your classes because they want to feel better and enhance their quality of life. They want functional fitness, not fashionable fitness. Teach movement with meaning, such as stretching and reaching up to increase the ability to get something off the top shelf!

  • Explain why a move is relevant, and describe its purpose.
  • Use the warm-up as a rehearsal for moves that will be used later in the class.
  • Build from basic steps and do gradual progressions.
  • Pay attention to changes in direction, rhythm, tempo, balance, volume, complexity and plane.
  • Suggest simple modifications or default moves.
  • Use movement patterns that reinforce agility, balance and stability.
  • Take advantage of repetition to reinforce muscle memory and create a comfort zone.
  • Occasionally introduce a challenging move, but be sure to label it as such first and give participants permission to opt out.
  • Cue both visually and verbally; people may have visual or auditory difficulties.
  • If it’s not too confusing for your participants, face them. This helps those who may be lip-reading. It also alleviates the effects of extraneous noise, such as indoor pool echoing.
  • Keep verbal cues short and concise. “Go right four” is easier for participants to process than “We’re now going to grapevine over to the right in four counts.”
  • Assess the room’s physical setup. How will posts, doors, equipment and size affect your participants’ ability to move safely?
  • Help people find the right spots in the room. For example, someone who wears bifocals may need to be directly in front of you so she isn’t constantly trying to shift focus, whereas a person with a hearing aid may need to stand away from the speakers. Also, someone who gets hot easily might be best off by the fan.

Motivation & Communication

How you communicate with your older participants helps determine whether they continue with your class, but their reasons for initially attending can differ significantly from those of other age groups. This population tends to be motivated by four factors: Prevention, Control, Reversal and Participation. Notice how appearance is not a top motivator!

  • Look for underlying social needs that may not have been articulated.
  • Say your name and learn participants’ names.
  • Notice and comment on progress of any sort.
  • Be sincere, enthusiastic, caring and compassionate.
  • Have a sense of humor.
  • Act in a trustworthy manner so that you gain participants’ trust.
  • Respect participants’ physical limitations.
  • Dedicate portions of the class to members’ specific concerns. For instance, tell participants, “Today we’ll focus on the back for a few minutes because Clyde is saying his back has been bothering him.”
  • Make eye contact with each participant at some point during class.


Volume and selection are the biggest issues when selecting and playing music for older-adult classes. If the music and you are competing for attention, turn the sound down or off. Turning up your microphone will not improve the situation, especially for people with hearing aids.

As in any age group, music preferences differ, but big band, swing, Broadway, classical, jazz, social dance (e.g., mambo and lindy) and even Motown are usually good bets. Depending on your class makeup, country, pop, disco, rock, Latin and Top 40 may also be well received.

  • Ask about music preferences and favorite singers/songs.
  • Buy professionally mixed music that targets this age group. Your purchases will create a demand in the market, which will encourage music companies to make more!
  • Ask at the start of class and every time you change selections if the music and microphone volume are okay.
  • If you turn on a cooling fan, check the music volume again.
  • Encourage everyone to sing along.
  • Occasionally tailor your moves to the music (do-si-do works great on land and in water for country songs).
  • Consider using a slower cadence (beats per minute) than you use in standard class formats.

Individual Touches

Every participant (and instructor) has things they prefer, but one essential personal touch is to learn students’ names. And depending on style, hugs or a hand on the shoulder may be welcome, especially as it may be the only human contact of the day for that student.

Here’s What’s in It for You

The rewards of teaching this special population far outnumber any extra effort involved. This is a group of people who are grateful, consistent, loyal and supportive and who truly want to learn.

fitness classes for older adultsAlexandra Williams, MA, is half of the twin duo that writes the blog. She has been in the fitness industry for almost 30 years, writing, presenting, teaching and editing! She and her twin sister Kymberly are FitFluential ambassadors. Alexandra currently is a contributing writer to IDEA Fitness Journal and instructor at UC Santa Barbara.



Are you an older adult who attends fitness classes?

What’s your best advice for instructors of fitness classes for older adults?


    when I was in my 20s I studied adult learning in my masters program and I completely recall thinking “HUH THEY LEARN SO MUCH DIFFERENTLY THAN I DO. One every level.”
    MIzMiz recently posted…Three reasons Im *for* the family meal.My Profile

    • I think Alexandra makes some great points that apply to all ages as well! Different learning strokes for different folks!

  2. Are you calling me old??? 😉 Kidding!!!

    Really a great post though because there are differences that need to be made & yes, paying attention to them & form & feeling out what is right.

    I don’t take classes but I know how I am now vs. younger! 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 54 recently posted…Smaller Waist, Back & Butt StuffMy Profile

  3. Thanks for this! It is so complete I have nothing to add. All my classes are made up of older adults (you know this is true when you get excited to see a 50-something because you have a youngster in class). As I was reading, every time I’d think of something to add Alexandra would address it. A great post and a great age group of people to work with. Seriously, it should be required reading for anyone who is going to start teaching senior classes.
    Debbie @ Live from La Quinta recently posted…Weekend Reader: #Vegan Recipe InspirationMy Profile

    • I had the same experience as you Debbie when I first read Alexandra’s post. She knows of what she writes!

  4. Age is all relative. But we’re all moving in that direction. : ) This topic is covered here so comprehensively! Alexandra’s students are very lucky to have such a knowledgeable instructor.

  5. Really great post! Such valuable information here!
    Kierston recently posted…WIAW: Rollin’ Up!My Profile

  6. My mom is 70 and goes to aqua fit at town center and her one big beef is when instructors don’t play music from their era, so I was glad to hear that was being recognized.
    My cousin quite going to Curves because all the older ladies complained about the volume of music so they kept it down. Guess you can’t win them all.

    • You know how I feel about the music being too loud in group fitness classes. Must be getting old(er) myself!

  7. Thank you all for the many kind comments. I’m glad you feel the list is comprehensive, because my original version was twice as long, which would have been a chore to read! Now I am so glad I edited judiciously. I hope my instructors of the future play my kind of music – Disco!
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…How Yoga Can Help Your MindMy Profile

  8. My sister is a genius! Oh, I might be biased!
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…How Yoga Can Help Your MindMy Profile

  9. Fantastic topic! It makes me smile as I remember teaching the Senior Fitness class where I worked recently. I loved em but they were a stoic bunch, never any feedback, smiles, nothing! At the end of the second class one of the ladies told me they couldn’t hear a word I was saying (music was too loud)! Argh.. well live and learn 🙂
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Looking Great Naked: Interview with JC Deen of JCDFitnessMy Profile

  10. Well done

    • Thanks Jean! You’ll probably enjoy tomorrow’s post too. It’s about training women over the age of 40 (and why I love this group!). Stay tuned!

  11. What a great post!
    Thank you that is exactly what I needed!

  12. Thank you for emphasizing some important points such as music volume and selection and giving visual and verbal cues. I remember my 1st time handling a senior fitness class, my patience was really tested. But later on, I realized what I needed to improve on. I hope everyone lives a healthy and happy life! 🙂


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