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As ageing changes, what does it mean for the fitness industry?

Alejandra Rodriguez


July 31st, 2019

“What we think of as old has changed over time, and it will need to continue changing in the future as people live longer, healthier lives. Someone who is 60 years old today, I would argue, is middle-aged. 200 years ago, a 60-year-old would be a very old person.”

Sergei Scherbov, IIASA World Population Program Deputy Director

What does it mean to age? Perceptions around what is like to be old are changing. People nowadays have a longer life expectancy and, with the rise of fitness and wellness as a culture, individuals are adopting healthier habits. However, even when seniors want to have an active lifestyle and independence, they remain underrepresented in an industry that designs fitness experiences mostly for Millennials and Generation Z.

How should the healthcare and fitness industry respond to this phenomenon? While it’s true that fitness looks different for a person in their 60s compared to a person in their 20s, it’s important to avoid stigma around what fitness equipment, wearables, and apps should look like when they address elderly people. The so-called “golden age” is not a period of decline, but rather a moment when most people feel there are so many more things they want to accomplish and finally they have the spare time to do it. This video from Disrupting Aging shows that adults around their 50s, 60s and even 70s can be as active or even more physically capable than Millenials.

So, how are older generations using technology and how can the fitness industry create strategies to offer them high-quality experiences?

Why is it so relevant for the fitness industry to address seniors? Demographics are changing

As we highlight in our whitepaper “Holistic wellness: The trend that is revolutionizing fitness”, the number of seniors is projected to reach unprecedented numbers. In 2020 people aged over 60 in the world will surpass one billion and, by 2050, they will represent a larger population than children under the age of 14 for the first time ever.

According to Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, in 1950, the population in Europe was represented with a pyramid, where newborns almost doubled the senior population. In contrast, by 2050 there will not be a pyramid, but what Harper calls a skyscraper, with elders surpassing the number of babies: birth rate decreases and longevity increases.

The fitness industry has work to do to address this growing sector. However, the majority, if not all fitness experiences involve technology, and seniors interact in a different way with technology than younger generations.

What lies behind the relationship between seniors and technology?

Is it true that elderly are disengaged from technology? While Millennials and Gen Z’ers are more likely to use the Internet, mobile applications and wearables as key parts of their daily lives, it’s also true that there are seniors who use technology extensively. However, this adoption depends on a variety of factors such as cognitive structures, socioeconomic status, and education.

Different brain structures

Mark Prensky, an American writer, came up in 2001 with the terms “Digital native” and “Digital immigrant”. According to Prensky, digital natives are the people who were born with technology and grew up in constant interaction with the internet and digital interfaces. As a result, they were exposed to very different types of information. They developed a parallel cognitive structure, which means they are able to grasp various pieces of information at the same time. They are more likely to infer and deduce with no need for instructions to figure out how a mobile application works, for instance.

In contrast, digital immigrants are the people who adopted technology at a later point in their lives. This means that the type of visual information they were exposed to was different, for instance, radio and television. As a result, they are more likely to follow a step-by-step approach; their cognitive structure is sequential, which means it might be more challenging for them to interact with digital interfaces and interconnected devices.

Is skepticism winning? Attitudes regarding the adoption of technology

Among the senior population, some are reluctant to adopt technology either because they don’t trust online platforms or they don’t think they have the ability to interact with digital devices. Others, however, find advantage in the usage of tech. Let’s examine some numbers.

Studies by the Pew Research Center examined the opinion of older adults who don’t use the internet regarding this statement: “People lacking internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing”. 49% of respondents agreed with the statement while 35% disagreed they are at a disadvantage for not going online.

Studies and focus groups made with 31 retirement community residents in the US show that frustration plays a role in seniors attitudes towards technology; they feel anxious about manipulating devices and tend to believe they don’t have the skills to do it. The study also showed that 81% of participants are concerned about security and data privacy, which is another factor that reinforces hesitancy in using technology, mostly when it comes to online transactions and online banking services.

This report by Age UK examines the opinion of seniors regarding banking services. Their research shows that many elders prefer in-branch banking because they “like to deal with people face-to-face” or they “don’t want to talk to a machine”. Also, they are hesitant to use Internet banking and Internet commerce because they are afraid of possible fraud, doubt their skills or the internet’s capacity to function properly. In some areas where seniors live the internet is not fast and reliable: “Sometimes it stops in mid-transaction and you have to do it again” said one of the respondents.

The nuances of technology adoption

Despite the percentage of seniors who are reluctant to go online and use digital devices, there is also a number of elderly who understand technology as a key part of their lives. Among seniors who have adopted digital technology, 71% go online almost on a daily basis and 11% go online approximately four times a week. Also, 94% of senior internet users agree that thanks to the internet, nowadays it is possible to find information much easier than in the past.

These numbers depend to a great extent on education. 87% of seniors with a college degree use the internet and 76% have broadband at home. In contrast, only 40% of seniors who haven’t attended college go online and only 27% of them are broadband adopters. Technology adoption rates among highly educated seniors are almost equal to those among the broader population.

Incomes also play a role in technology adoption. 90% of seniors with an annual household income of $75,000 or more go online and 82% have broadband at home. Among seniors who earn less than $30,000 annually, 39% use the internet and 25% have broadband at home.

UX Challenge: designing fitness wearables, apps, and interfaces for seniors

We just examined the plethora of elements that constitute the relationship between seniors and technology. Baring in mind these criteria, what are the guidelines that designers will have to take into account to design fitness interfaces or devices for seniors?

  • Design without stereotypes. Seniors want to have control of their lives without being underestimated. As a result, designers must create experiences that address their needs but also recognize their strengths.
  • They should be simple to use and easy to configure. This generation is, in general, not as familiar with technology as other generations. 77% of seniors indicate would need someone to help them through the process of setting up a new device, while only 18% feel comfortable manipulating technology on their own. This is why interfaces and products must be simple and intuitive to use. It’s also useful to consider that digital conventions that are obvious for youngsters might be completely unfamiliar for seniors. For instance, Millennials know that clicking on the logo of a website will take them to the main page. This is a digital rule that might be unknown for seniors.
  • Devices must be comfortable to wear. While most fitness devices designed for young people only track physical activity while exercising, devices for seniors would also have value in tracking body activity during the day and night to control certain illnesses or to assist them in the case of an accident. As a result, these devices must be comfortable to enhance their daily activities instead of causing distractions.
  • Informative, concise and visually friendly. While some elders are in good physical condition, many of them have health issues that make it difficult to interact with technology. For instance, vision loss affects 37 million Americans older than 50 years and one in four who are older than 80 years. Also among different populations in the US, age-related macular degeneration is a major cause of visual impairment.

As a result, interfaces must provide concise and easy to interpret information with friendly typography and graphics.

What is out there in the market?

Although there are very different variables and criteria to take into account to address seniors’ fitness and health objectives, the market offers a wide range of devices for seniors. We have narrowed down that list to what we consider some of the most innovative:

  • E-vone shoes. Launched in the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2018, E-vone shoes are equipped with a fall-detection system. They have multiple sensors (accelerometer, pressure system and gyroscope) that enable them to detect loss of verticality and abrupt movements. The shoe vibrates to confirm it was an actual fall. If there is no response from the person, the shoe activates an alarm to get assistance through GPS coordinates.

E-vone shoes give seniors independence while keeping them safe. No one is exempt from a fall. This shoe is helpful not only for seniors but also for athletes or even people working in construction, who might be in danger of falling

“E-vone. The connected shoe that loves free seniors”
Source: http://www.e-vone.com/home-lookbook/

  • Garmin Vivofit Fitness Band. Probably the most attractive feature of this wrist band is it’s long-lasting battery: the device can be kept on for a year. It shows a red bar after an hour of inactivity, and the bar increases every 15 minutes. When the user gets up or takes a short walk, the bar disappears and resets. It is water resistance, preventing accidental damage. It registers the calories you burnt on a day and tracks quality of sleep, using this data to improve sleep over time. It is designed to feel comfortable during the day and at night.

Cons? It is difficult to use when there are not optimal lighting conditions because there is no backlight behind the screen. Also, it doesn’t have a vibration mode, which means it’s not the best choice for those who prefer the device to vibrate in case of alarms and notifications.

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Garmin-v%C3%ADvofit-Fitness-Band-Black/dp/B00HFPOXM4

  • Apple Watch Series 4. This smartwatch offers a big display and 50% louder speaker, GPS system, electrical fall sensor and emergency SOS that displays the user’s medical ID badge to help doctors assist them. It tracks heart rate throughout the day and detects arrhythmias when users don’t recognize symptoms. The iPhone Health app easily and safely stores user’s data and it offers a variety of apps to help users be physically and mentally healthy.
    Apple Watch Series 4 is one of the best options not only to help seniors have an active and independent lifestyle, but also for young athletes or simply people who want to develop healthy habits.

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Apple-Watch-GPS-40mm-Space-Aluminium/dp/B07HDGH3PV

The takeaway

The concept of getting old is changing. People today have a longer life expectancy and they are adopting habits that enable them to maintain an active and independent lifestyle when they reach their 60’s or 70’s. The senior population continues to grow in size.

The fitness industry is becoming aware of this phenomenon; however, addressing this segment in the digital era is a challenge. UX designers and the fitness industry, in general, will have to create experiences that are simple, comfortable, and that address the mindset and physical condition of older generations.

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