This article was inspired by conversations surrounding the excellent CrossFit Journal video “The Docs”, about Drs. Mike Cutaia and Judy Feldman, two CrossFit South Brooklyn members who have seen great benefits to their health and wellness from CrossFit-style training. I’m fortunate to have had trained “The Docs” for a few years. I’ve also had some successes and failures getting my own father into a rewarding and sustainable fitness habit- here’s some lessons I’ve learned about getting older populations into the gym.
1. Start With Private Training
While a big part of the power of CrossFit is the group nature of classes, most older folks will benefit from being trained privately. Unless they have been extremely active up to the point they walk into the gym, they will likely need to start very slowly and modify a lot. Even the possibility that they have an overwhelming moment in group class should be avoided- it can be a major momentum killer. Find them a coach (ideally with some experience with older populations) who can meet them at their starting point, wherever that is. They can still be a part of the community, especially if they train during class hours- the athletes in group classes will gravitate to them out of respect for their hard work and commitment.
2. It Shouldn’t Be You!
Don’t train your parents! While this may seem like an easy and economical way to get them into a routine, it will ultimately fail. You have decades of familiarity with your parents, and it will cloud your coach’s eye and approach. I tried this with my dad, and failed miserably. First, we blew each other off all the time! He knew I was busy, I knew he was busy, nobody was paying or getting paid, so we cancelled on each other, a lot. Second, I was overly protective of him, and didn’t push him the way I would my other clients. Finally I set him up with a colleague and his progress boomed- he stopped missing sessions because he was financially invested and didn’t want to flake on a stranger, and she was able to find a better balance of challenging but safe training for him.
3. Manage their Preconceptions
A session for your parents will have some common pieces with a CrossFit group class, but lots of differences. Many older people look at CrossFit and say “I could never do that.” Let them know that for the most part they won’t have to. Sessions will involve less technical weightlifting and gymnastic components, and more basic functional strength and range of motion work. They will still be challenging, but they will be appropriate.
4. They Don’t Have To Do CrossFit
There’s a chance that your parents just won’t set foot in your gym, and you have to be OK with that. There are lots of training options out there, and for older populations the important thing is that they are doing some strength training, in full ranges of motions and with some functional aspect, with a coach who knows their stuff. We think CrossFit is the best (damn right), but anything is better than nothing.
5. But They Aren’t Fish
I say this to my mom a lot- she loves to swim and would gladly spend a few hours swimming laps every day. I always (gently) remind her that even though with her love for and commitment to swimming she still lives in a gravity-driven, non-submerged world for most of her life. As such, she needs to maintain ROM and practice overcoming gravity (aka clangin’ and bangin’). Those components are crucial for people as they age- diminished range of motion and the inability to bear load, balance, and resist gravity are the true dangers to older folks. Just because something is comfortable for them doesn’t make it optimal.
6. Let Them Come to You, Then Pounce
When you first “drink the Kool-Aid,” you rightly want to share CrossFit with everyone, that’s natural. Resist the urge to sign your parents up for the Open before they set foot in the gym- play the long game. Instead talk with them about general health benefits, show them videos like “The Docs” and wait for them show interest in doing something similar. When that happens, strike quickly- buy them a session or package of private training or set up a consult or call with a coach. Make them feel like they are making the decision, then remove all barriers to entry.
Those are some of the lessons I’ve learned (and it hasn’t always been pretty.) Have you gotten your folks to CrossFit? What worked? What didn’t?
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