Attention, baby boomers: if you aerobicized religiously in the '80s, slacked off and got a little flabby during the '90s, and now find yourself pondering a pre-retirement return to exercise, NEWSWEEK would like to offer you two simple pieces of advice. First, don't push too hard and risk injuring yourself; we know you hate hearing this, but you're not 25 anymore. Second, American Apparel may be reviving skintight unitards, but if these didn't flatter you at the aforementioned age of 25 (and trust us, they didn't flatter anyone who wasn't Jane Fonda), they're not going to now. Boomers, do yourselves a favor. Back away slowly from the spandex.
But please, don't back away from the gym—because, actually, you're looking admirably fit these days. The boomers are the generation we have to thank for Suzanne (ThighMaster) Somers (born in 1946), Richard ("Sweatin' to the Oldies") Simmons (1948) and that Tae Bo guy (1955, and his name is Billy Blanks). Now they're responsible for a new fad that might be called "Sweatin' With the Oldies." As their golden years approach, boomers are heading back to the fitness centers in record numbers. And they're overhauling their entire concept of working out, fashioning an approach to exercise that fits their new, somewhat weightier needs.
In the last decade, boomers have become the fastest-growing segment of the health-nut crowd. Now gyms are returning the favor, increasingly catering to their growing clientele of folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They're cutting down on cumbersome, hard-to-use exercise equipment and instead beefing up on group activities that are gentler on the joints (like water aerobics) and the psyche (tai chi and at least a dozen varieties of yoga). There are new devices—"foam rollers" and "stability disks," anyone?—and new exercises that emphasize agility and balance, not aerobics and bench pressing. The boomers even have their own national fitness magazine, founded in 2005, with a circulation of 50,000 and growing. The mag is remarkably direct about its mission, even if it's not necessarily the kind of glossy thing you'd want to display on your coffee table: its name is GeezerJock.
The boomers, it seems, have accepted that they won't remain forever young. But they've also realized that staying in shape can keep them from feeling old. In doing so, they've finally embraced the realistic, wholesome attitude experts have been advocating since the nation became obsessed with fitness more than three decades ago. Their latest workout craze puts health before beauty; yes, they still get physical, but for different reasons than they used to. "For them, this isn't about looking hot anymore," says Arleen Cauchi, CEO of the Boomer Fitness or B-Fit gym of San Carlos, Calif. "It's more about enjoying life. It's, 'I want to feel good about myself, and I don't want my back to hurt when I'm running around with my grandkids'." Well said, even if it doesn't make for much of an Olivia Newton-John song.
It's no wonder the boomers have remained fitness fans for so long—theirs was the first generation that was into working out. In 1954, when the eldest of them were still in elementary school, researchers measured the fitness of American kids and found that the country was in danger of raising a generation of porkers. Nearly 60 percent of kids failed at least one of the tests, compared with 9 percent of European children the same age. Dwight Eisenhower, a former high-school football and baseball star, was horrified; he founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. John F. Kennedy went even further, branding his own countrymen as "soft" in Sports Illustrated. It was the cold-war era, soft in any form was unacceptable, and schools around the country promptly overhauled their physical-education programs in response.
It worked. After graduation, the strapping young boomers took the principles they'd learned in P.E. class and ran with them, as it were, starting the '70s running craze. Inspired by the out-of-nowhere success of American distance runners at the Olympics of the '60s and early '70s —and frightened by suddenly rising rates of heart disease—a generation laced up its jogging shoes. It was the first major fitness fad to sweep the country, and it happened fast. In 1964, the Boston Marathon had 403 participants. Five years later the field had tripled. On April 16, 1984, 6,924 people hit the Boston roads, and millions more were pounding the considerably less mean streets of their own neighborhoods.
By that time, the boomers had transformed the rest of the fitness world into a multibillion-dollar industry. The actress Jane Fonda had become the fitness goddess Jane Fonda, taking the relatively little-known concept of aerobics (coined in 1968 by an Air Force doc named Kenneth Cooper) and giving small classes to friends starting in 1978. "Jane Fonda's Workout" became one of the best-selling videotapes in history. Three years later the few people still resisting Fonda's cheery aerobics juggernaut could no longer avoid it; it was all over the culture.
It's hard to know what Eisenhower, 25 years later, would have made of Newton-John's hit video for "Physical," which came out in 1981. An ode to casual sex that posed as an exhortation to exercise—everyone sing along, Let me hear your body talk!—it would go on to become the biggest chart topper of its decade, thanks in no small part to the video of Newton-John cavorting with Speedo-wearing, Schwarzenegger-esque studs in what looked like a cross between a gym and a porno set. Never mind that at the end of the video, the guys ran off holding hands with each other; the song launched a million boomer fantasies of all sexual persuasions, did wonders for sales of terry-cloth headbands and turned working out into the hottest form of foreplay.
After that came Simmons, who briefly threatened to cancel out all the sexing-up fitness that Fonda and Newton-John had done, but brought in hundreds of thousands of new workout enthusiasts in the process. Then there was the ThighMaster. Somers didn't invent it (the creator was one Joshua Reynolds, father of another device of dubious effectiveness, the mood ring), but she did for it what Fonda did for leg lifts. Then came Bowflex, and NordicTrack, and kickboxing, and yoga, and Pilates.
Which brings us to today's Aerobic Striptease, a workout routine in which participants take off both unwanted pounds and their clothes. Think it sounds risqué? It's no more so than the "Physical" video. You can now see Aerobic Striptease on display in suburban boomer households across the country. Some housewives have installed poles in their living rooms. It has its own Newton-John in the form of Carmen Electra, whose workout videos are top sellers. The more things change, et cetera.
Of course, one important thing really has changed. The people doing the exercising are still happy to strip and kick and grapevine and do the downward-facing dog, but their arms and legs don't always comply. Their muscles are aching and their knees are blown out. Their bodies are still talking—but what they're saying these days is "ouch." That, more than anything else, is what's driving the boomers' latest fitness fad.
At 50 or older, boomers aren't always happy to discover they can't run as fast, leap as far or lift as much as they used to, says Marilyn Moffat, a physical therapist and the author of the new book "Age-Defying Fitness." "I think sometimes they can have a delusional sense of what's happened to their bodies over the last 40 years," she says. "Maybe it's that Me Generation thing, the feeling that 'I can do whatever I feel like doing, and I can do it whenever I want to do it'."
Alas, that's no longer true. When muscles that haven't been used in years suddenly get a "mammoth stretch," she says, they can rip. One of her clients, Anthony Terrano, found that out the hard way. A former runner, he gained 30 pounds after arthritis stopped him from running at 55. To keep more pounds off, "I would do some weight lifting," he says, "but I was just injuring myself all the time."
Both boomer weekend warriors and former serious athletes run the risk of injuries when they jump feet first into new workout routines—the first group because they haven't done all that much to stay in shape over the years, and the second because they go at their new exercise regimens with the same gusto, if not the same abilities, that they had in younger years.
But for both groups, there's a way to feel the burn again without actually feeling pain. Trainers now advise the boomers to "start low and go slow," working gradually up to higher levels of fitness while conceding that they may not reach the peaks of their youth. The approach seems to have worked for Terrano, who has successfully adopted a mix of cardio, weight lifting and stretching. "At first it seemed like an embarrassingly tiny amount of exercise," he says. "But patience is key. You feel sort of like a wimp, but it's so much better than doing nothing at all."
Boomers are also changing the types of exercise they do, focusing on balance and overall strength. You'll still find the occasional 60-year-old trudging along on the treadmill, but largely, the generation has traded in its ThighMasters and StairMasters. Much of its new equipment is similar to what's found in physical therapists' offices. Latex resistance bands help boomers stretch out taut muscles, while plastic exercise balls force them to flex their backs and stay on balance. Moffat even has her healthy fifty- and sixtysomething clients perform one of the easy tasks she gives her therapy patients—they "train while they're brushing their teeth, just rising up on their toes at the sink." Recumbent bikes, which put very little stress on the knees, are also popular. So are tai chi and other mind-body workouts. And, of course, there are the old standbys, golf, swimming and tennis, which remain as beloved as ever.
Boomers are notoriously demanding, and gyms have responded to that, too. The personal-trainer fad never really went away, but among boomers who need help navigating new workout equipment, it's making a mini-comeback. "Younger people like to do their own thing, but boomers are used to having a little more guidance in other parts of their lives," says Cauchi, the B-Fit gym CEO. "They've got investment people and insurance people already. So when they go to the gym, they tend to really appreciate expertise." B-Fit gives each client a trainer, and it customizes workouts for them according to their favorite sports (so long as those sports happen to be classic boomer favorites like tennis, golf, hiking and biking). Cauchi says the approach has her "beating the business-plan numbers every week," and she's in talks to put boomercentric gyms in country clubs and golf communities around the nation.
In some respects, there's already a nationwide gym that caters to boomers. Curves is officially aimed at women of all ages, but it started out with a 30-minute workout designed for busy boomer women who didn't have much free time. "The boomers live in a world that is time-restricted," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, "and we want everything quickly."
On the flip side, some boomers have made so much time for their new exercise habits that they've spawned a new industry: healthcentric adventure travel. Boomers seek out yoga camps in Thailand, martial arts in Japan, hiking anywhere there's an incline and an inclination."I just got off the phone with a fiftysomething guy who swam the entire Amazon in 67 days," says Sean Callahan, editor of GeezerJock, "and you can't even turn around without hearing another story that tops the last one."
GeezerJock celebrates the boomers' tendency toward excess. Often, that manifests as a competitive urge. The magazine's current cover story tells the secrets of "ultrarunners" who "outpace younger competitors"; the poster boy is Roy Pirrung, who at the age of 58 ran nearly 140 straight miles for a second-place finish in last year's USA Track and Field 24-Hour Championships. Each year the mag joins up with Michelob Ultra beer to crown the "GeezerJock of the Year." Current nominees include Pirrung and Liz Johnson, who played professional women's tackle football for the Carolina Spartans at 47. Recently, she's turned to baseball; in January, at 50, she attended the Arizona Diamondbacks fantasy camp—as one of just two women allowed on the field. For boomer women like her, the opportunity to compete holds a special appeal, says Callahan: "These women came before Title IX, and this is really their first chance."
But not all the GeezerJocks, male orfemale, are so focused on prizes. Linda Glick, another nominee, is going to the next Senior Olympics in the 100-meter run and the long jump. She admits that she'll likely get cut in the prelim rounds, but she's not upset about it. After all, she says, she didn't start working out until the day she got her Medicare card in the mail.
For many boomers, of course, Medicare is still a long way off. (The youngest of the generation are currently 43.) But—and here's another thing we know they hate to hear—time goes fast. They'll do best if they take as their role model one last GeezerJock nominee, Leo Luken. Sure, he's retired and living in Hilton Head, S.C. But last year he shot an 81 in golf, six strokes under his age. Jane Fonda, we're willing to bet even you can't top that.