Differentiation Is the Big Disruptor in Senior Fitness

By Steve Olin | April 26, 2021 | Rally Health

Senior Fitness

Seniors are an important and rapidly growing market for health plans, especially as Baby Boomers age into Medicare and prioritize health in retirement. This cohort — currently between 57 and 75 years old — is often credited with starting the fitness revolution in the ‘70s-’80s, embracing regular exercise, taking up jogging, joining health clubs, and following along with aerobics videos at home.

At nearly 72 million strong, Boomers understand the importance of fitness. Yet today, more than three quarters of gym-goers are under the age of 55, according to data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. What’s more, only about a third of Boomers now engage in regular exercise, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

These statistics signify a problem, given that physical activity is well-established in the scientific literature as one of the most important steps seniors can take to age well and manage or prevent health problems. A sampling of findings:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends increasing activity to prevent, delay, manage and/or lessen the severity of chronic diseases, including arthritis.
  • Older adults who engage in more physical activity and less sitting time have better overall physical and mental health, according to a study from the American Cancer Society.
  • Members of this demographic who regularly exercise demonstrate increased functional abilities, decreased risk of falls, improved mood and motivation, and decreased anxiety and depression.

Being sedentary not only lowers seniors’ quality of life, but also dramatically increases health care costs. In the U.S., inactive adults face an average of $1,437 more in annual health care expenditures than their more active peers. As Boomers retire –– many without sufficient savings –– payers looking to help this group reduce health care costs while enjoying their golden years should focus on boosting physical activity.

So how can Medicare Advantage and Supplemental plans stand out from the pack and incentivize Boomers to rekindle their passion for exercise? The key is to provide differentiated member programs that encourage physical fitness while aligning with how this demographic sees itself: digitally savvy, social, and eager to try new things.

Increase the Options

To fully benefit from physical activity, the National Institute on Aging recommends that older adults participate in four types of exercise: heart-pumping activity such as bike riding, brisk walking or dancing; strength training with weights or resistance bands; balance exercises to prevent falls; and flexibility work to remain limber.

The good news for both health plans and seniors is that there have never been more options when it comes to finding specialized gyms that cater to individual needs and interests. From yoga, cycling, and Pilates, to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), the opportunities are endless –– and the smaller size of boutique fitness studios offer increased instruction, convenient locations, and an intimate environment that can eliminate the intimidation factor in trying something new.

Health plans looking to boost seniors’ exercise, then, should offer day-to-day flexibility that allows members to try a variety of classes including dance, strength, core, cycling, as well as relaxation, balance and flexibility activities at an array of clubs and boutique fitness studios. Bonus points go to plans that offer access to new activities such as pickleball –– which combines elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong –– or classes on a joint-friendly rowing machine...and make sure that caregivers receive access, too.

Because the boutique fitness movement has introduced so many new types of studios, it’s important for health plans to continually assess and update in-network offerings. The best fitness solutions offer members the ability to nominate studios and gyms that are not currently in-network and ensure they receive prompt responses.

Take it Beyond the Gym

Boomers have embraced the trends in digital on-demand, live fitness classes and wearable fitness devices, joining Millennials in counting their steps and increasing their activity outside of the gym, especially in the digital space. In fact, one study suggests that wearing a fitness tracker helps older women become more active. Forward-thinking payers should offer complimentary digital on-demand and live fitness classes that offer guided workouts, sleep tracking, meditation, and other tools to help seniors reach their fitness goals.

Similarly, health plans that want to take a fitness-focused approach should expand their definition of the word “fitness” to include brain conditioning or training. New research suggests that Baby Boomers experience faster cognitive decline than people in previous generations. And because so many members of this generation have watched parents or other loved ones suffer from dementia, maintaining brain health is a top concern for them. While exercise is an excellent way to protect against cognitive problems, many seniors are also interested in online brain health training programs. These programs offer assessments and personalized recommendations for creating a brain health program with clinically proven exercises that focus on attention, processing speed, and more.

Make it Social — and Easy to Use

Finally, health plans eager to improve seniors’ fitness should offer an easy-to-use platform that provides a social component. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended in-person socializing, older Americans already suffered from an epidemic of loneliness.

At the same time, an increasing body of research is showing that chronic loneliness may be more dangerous to our health than obesity. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that older patients with heart failure who reported a high level of perceived social isolation had a greater risk of hospitalization, ER visits, and early death than those who did not.

Wellness programs that provide online platforms not only allow members to find information about managing their health, but also offer access to social communities –– both virtual and live –– where seniors can interact with peers and form the bonds that are critical to healthy aging.

The data is clear: To bend the cost curve while offering the best possible service to the growing 65+ demographic, payers must offer sophisticated fitness benefits within standard plans. But basic gym memberships won’t impress Baby Boomers, especially those just aging into Medicare. Instead, plans must adopt a suite of modern, differentiated perks that appeal to Boomers by helping them achieve a holistic approach to wellness that includes boutique fitness classes and cutting edge digital offerings such as on-demand and live fitness classes, brain-training and social programs. By adopting the right platform that offers a range of scientifically backed ways to improve health and quality of life, health plans can differentiate from competitors offering “check the box” solutions, and they can ensure lasting benefits for their members for many years to come.

Steve Olin is the Chief Product Officer at Rally Health, Inc.

This article first appeared April 19, 2021 on HealthPayerIntelligence.com.


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