The stereotypes many athletic clubs use to entice customers are all too familiar to older adults: impossibly gorgeous women and men who work out hour after hour to sculpt perfect bodies.
"Cher, Heather Locklear, Shari Belafonte -- these are people who don't even have a pimple, let alone an extra percentage of body fat," said Elaine Ralph, co-owner of the Bel Air Athletic Club (BAAC) in Harford County. "I think these stereotypes have kept many older people from joining athletic clubs."
Making people over 50 comfortable with joining an athletic club is not easy -- especially as the clubs actively recruit young adults.
"Fitness is a relatively new phenomenon," Ms. Ralph said. "Nutrition, diet and exercise weren't part of many older Americans' lives."
When Elaine and Roger Ralph opened the club's doors in 1980, members were more likely to be professionals in their 20s and 30s. Now, members sport more gray hair, 65-year-old men participate in aerobics classes, and locker room talk focuses on kids and grandkids rather than the opposite sex.
People over 50 make up 13 percent of the BAAC's total membership, up from 11 percent in 1989.
BAAC does not target one age group in its marketing efforts, Ms. Ralph said. The club tries to reach families and present its fitness programs as highly personalized. Its print advertising shows all ages working out together.
"We have a couple of generations of families here," she said. "Grandparents are riding the Lifecycles while parents are taking the aerobics class and children are enrolled in a gymnastics program.
"In our ad copy, we stress we have programs for everyone, whether you need a challenge or you're just starting out."
The club's objective is to develop exercise programs that anyone, including older people, feel comfortable starting and continuing.
"Our indoor pool really helps us," Ms. Ralph said. "Older members in their wildest dreams can't imagine themselves using Nautilus equipment. But they know they can swim. It's how a lot of people start out."
Many members over 50 also participate in a light aerobic class called Lite & Lively. The class is targeted at people who want cardiovascular exercise, but who know conventional aerobics would be too grueling. The class is taught several times a week, primarily by DiAnne Lockerman, a professional instructor in her 40s.
"We took a lot of care to select DiAnne as an instructor for the class," Ms. Ralph said. "She is very non-threatening to people who may just be beginning an exercise program.
"Her class is also very social -- the members look out for one another," she said. "They know if one who attends regularly isn't there on a particular day, others will be concerned about him or her. Many have lost spouses, and the classes become a good support group."
Ms. Lockerman began teaching the Lite & Lively class at the club two years ago in a small room out of view of others.
"Our thinking was that people might be concerned about being watched, what to wear, that sort of thing," she said. But after a year, the class was so popular it had to be moved to the large gymnasium in the center of the club.
"We lost a few men from the class when we moved, but we gained others," Ms. Lockerman said. "We started with five participants. Now we average about 26 to 32 per class. One person in the class is 76 this year."