10. January 2022, by Cornelia Tautenhahn

Best practice for fitness in older years: what should be taken into consideration with equipment and training

As people age regular exercise becomes increasingly important. But which offers are best suited for senior citizens and best agers? How can you reach out to them and offer holistic care?  

“Wohnstift Beethoven” near Bonn, Germany, is a retirement residence that serves as a role model for fitness and exercise. Here therapy and training go hand in hand. Modern equipment and target-group specific courses invite elderly residents to take regular physical activity. Forming an integral part of the Wohnstift is the “Vitalisarium” – the residence’s in-house day spa complete with saunas, pool, and wellness treatments, physiotherapy, fitness and equipment training as well as health and preventive sports courses.


The Vitalisarium is also open to “outpatients” making it commercially profitable. For an interview about this model facility with potential for the future read on below.  


David Urbach serves as Managing Director at the Beethoven retirement home while physiotherapist and coach Kathleen Heinrich manages the Vitalisarium.


Vitalisarium © Senioren Wohnstift Beethoven

FIBO: Which fitness and prevention ranges do you offer?


David Urbach: All of our residents are aged 70+, the oldest is even 105. We aim to ensure our residents can lead an independent life for as long as possible. The key benefit of the Vitalisarium is that residents do not have to go anywhere else and can feel at home here even when it comes to their medical needs. They receive all-round care in line with their physical limitations. Our ranges are tuned to this older target group in many ways: our state-of-the-art equipment that does not have to be set by users themselves and we offer courses for seniors of different performance levels. The current concept has been applied in this way since 2016.


Kathleen Heinrich: In actual fact, the Vitalisarium has even rejuvenated our residents. The

offer is so attractive that some even move in at an earlier age. Previously we were not geared to these people but it is great to see former outpatients and gym members move in here later on.  


What percentage of residents use the Vitalisarium?

Urbach: All of them. Our courses are so wide-ranging and varied that we can cater to all ages and training objectives. Our residents know how important it is to stay physically fit and, after all, they can even see the results.    



What’s more, you also make the courses available to external users.

Urbach: Exactly, this is part of our business model. We are open to all target groups and register a broad age structure of members, currently 50 in total. Add to this, day-spa guests and physiotherapy patients that come to the residence.  


Do older people need gyms that are specifically geared to their needs?

Urbach: Fitness clubs that are more oriented towards a broader target group often cause inhibitions among older people. These customers prefer coming to us. But there are some gyms that offer “senior citizens’” mornings. It is helpful when the older generation are among themselves and their needs are catered to. On the other hand, some younger people shy away from our facility because they think “this is an old-people’s home”.


To what extent do fitness and physiotherapy work together?

Heinrich: The professionals here all work together. We make joint recommendations. There are cases where patients start prescription-based manual therapy with us and we also take care of their accompanying equipment training, for example.   


How important are treatments for external customers that are reimbursed by state sickness funds? 

Heinrich: There is a high demand for our aqua-gym prevention courses in line with the health promotion and prevention measures of § 20 of the German Social Code. Furthermore, we offer back training, Nordic Walking or Zumba as courses. We always try to come up with something new. In this segment we enjoy high customer loyalty. Once people join one of our courses, they never leave again, they just keep going.   


What else do you do to motivate your members and residents?

Heinrich: Here, the InBody Analysis we use plays a pivotal role. On the basis of this we draw up a tailor-made therapy plan. This allows us to constantly monitor how successful the training is. This way we can motivate people and customise the training for them.   



Which sports are particularly suited for the older generation?

Heinrich:  Really key here is fall prevention. Residents become more mobile and learn to react better in case they do fall. We place at lot of emphasis on this. And water gymnastics are an important aspect because it allows people to carry out completely different moves. Water provides a feel of security.  Nordic Walking is similarly recommended.  


Urbach: Here, too, age clearly matters – whether you are 70 or already 100 years old. The 70-year-olds living here are top fit and go cycling or jogging. We provide the stamina to prevent muscle atrophy. Muscle mass is, of course, lost very quickly if you do not exercise a lot. An example: a resident was bed-stricken in hospital for two weeks. He returned and his muscles were practically gone. In a case like this we have to counteract this development by building muscles. This ensures people are also “well positioned” in old age and future ailments such as back pain and knee problems are prevented.


How important is strength training?

Heinrich:  Our equipment is accepted and used very well by our seniors. In terms of strength training, however, I recommend opting for endurance training instead, which is geared more to muscle building in old age. So more repetitions rather than higher weights.  


And we also always explain to our residents: exercise is not only about strengthening skeletal muscles but also about the heart. This is a muscle that needs exercise in old age to ensure the heart rate remains stable and blood pressure at normal levels. It is so crucial to exercise the heart muscle – otherwise health problems in the cardio-vascular system can occur earlier.  



Do the older generation require equipment with weights or is body-weight training sufficient?

Heinrich:  Weights form an integral part of training but this training can be complemented by an in-house exercise routine.


Urbach: Group gymnastics also qualify as an alternative. Depending on the performance level we offer sports for the elderly or just seated gymnastics.    


Heinrich:  Social aspects are just as important in courses. Sport generally connects people. Time and again we see that small groups form who then always return to exercise together.  


To what extent does digitalisation play a role for you? We are always tempted to assume the older generation do not cope with modern tools so well.  

Heinrich:  Our retirees are au fait with digitalisation. Most of them have tablets, use them for skyping and so on. And this is why they also get along well with this at the gym. The big value added – in addition to the automatic setting of equipment - is monitoring by instructors who track training progress at the PC and can then adjust the equipment accordingly.  


Urbach: Digitalisation also solves many problems in an easy way. We have a 95-year-old resident who suffers from a visual impairment. She uses Alexa and Google – this makes life much easier. For most people moving in here this has become an everyday routine.  


Are there any underlying conditions where you would actually advise to avoid exercise?

Heinrich:  We would discourage people from exercising in the event of acute inflammation, and in case of progressed osteoporosis and pronounced heart insufficiency. Everything else can be adjusted so individually that exercising is always possible. Exercise needs to be pain-free and fun.  


Generally speaking, how do you think more retirees can be won over by the ranges the fitness industry has to offer?   

Heinrich:  We organised Health Days at the Vitalisarium – at least before the pandemic – where guests were invited to find out about our complete ranges. This way we always recruited new customers each time. Another important channel are physicians and physiotherapists who refer patients to us. So a crucial aspect for winning over patients is the cooperation with doctors, hospitals and rehab clinics.


Urbach: We offer everything in one – not just physiotherapy but also fitness. This allows us to continue providing patients with holistic care also after their therapy has ended. Furthermore, our pool allows us to perform rehabilitation very well. In general, the ranges on offer must simply be age-specific. The elderly must be able to operate the equipment and get added value from it.  


What should be considered when addressing the older generation?

Urbach: There is always the risk that 70-year-olds do not see themselves as elderly. “I am not old yet”. Here, fitness providers have to manage a tightrope act in addressing them. “Silver Agers” might be a better wording, for example. And probably by referring to fall prevention as trunk training.  


When gym operators wish to upgrade their ranges for an older target group, what should they take into consideration?

Urbach: We are pleased to share our specialisation.  What you should never forget is that training courses must be specifically geared to the elderly. You could offer various intensities for group training, for example.   


What is the optimum approach for instructors when advising their silver agers?

Heinrich:  In our facility all instructors are also skilled physiotherapists who therefore have a different approach to this. On top of this, we cooperate with experts such as a back training teacher, for example. It is important for guests to be perceived as individuals.  


Ms Heinrich, Mr Urbach, thank you very much for the interview. 


The Best Practice example of “Wohnstift Beethoven” shows how cooperation between physicians, physiotherapists and fitness coaches can prove a success. This is also the point of departure for the global initiative “Exercise is Medicine”. It aims to prescribe physical activity and sports as a prevention against diseases and for medical treatment. Being a member of this Initiative FIBO contributes to further embedding the importance of physical activity in the population and raising awareness about this topic in all age groups.