It’s what inspired a mother-and-son duo from Leicester to set up the Wigston branch of Gymophobics, a non-intimidating (and mirror-free) fitness club for women of all ages. The idea came about when Neil Davies’s mother Sara, 59, mentioned that she found traditional gyms unwelcoming. “For a lot of older people, being surrounded by people so much younger, in tight Lycra, is off-putting,’ says Davies. He acknowledges that there is also an invisibility factor when one reaches a certain age. “Older people often say that in conventional gyms they feel ignored and don’t like to ask for help.”
It’s not just the clients. This week, a 64-year-old personal trainer sued the upmarket central London gym where he worked for age discrimination, saying that its policy of conducting workouts to loud music “no more than 18 months old” put him at a disadvantage. Fitzroy Gaynes told an employment tribunal that he was not fond of Radio 1, didn’t go clubbing and preferred to conduct his classes to “older” motivational music. (His complaint was dismissed.)
According to Nicole Brule-Walker, 52, a movement specialist and Pilates instructor: “In the typical gym, we’re often faced with a huge rack of weights sitting there looking at us. In just one induction session, we’re expected to take on board a huge amount of information… then we’re on our own. We worry that we’re not doing it correctly and that we’re being watched, making mistakes. It all adds to feelings of anxiety.”
However, the fitness industry is finally waking up to the fact that the over-40s not only want to be fit but respond to an entirely different approach to their younger counterparts. This is what prompted Essex-based trainer Lisa Monger to launch her business, Rebel Health. Starting out with boxing classes and now encompassing strength training and virtual classes, she says: “The fitness industry has long been built around the aesthetic of what you look like in your clothes – and out of them. But as we grow older, it becomes less about fitting into skinny jeans or having ripping pectorals and more about whole health.”
She recognises that those of us in this age bracket don’t want “punishing, boringly repetitive workouts, or to be surrounded by people posing for gym selfies”. For me, that’s a particular bugbear. The last time I ventured into my gym, people were making Instagram reels, not just in the workout area but the changing room, too. “People in their 40s and beyond are looking for a sense of community and support,” says Monger.
Which is how Fit20 – a slow-motion resistance training method – came to be developed to suit this demographic. “As we age, there’s a natural loss of muscle mass and bone density,” says Niri Patel, the company’s UK managing director. “Getting older without feeling older – or, at the very least, delaying these adverse effects – is key.” The controlled, supervised exercise method is catching on fast, with 10 more UK studios being added this year, and membership up more than 50 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.