When you think of a gym rat, you tend to picture bronzed, buff twenty-somethings lifting weights and swiping on Tinder before going back to admiring their biceps. But luxury gyms around the country have noticed a quiet uptick in requests for personal trainers not from body-conscious millennials but from the over-65 group - people looking to find the figure that decades of over-indulgence, a pregnancy or two and a Netflix addiction might have lost.
“Some of our fittest members are over 60 so how easy this is all depends on where your starting point is,” says James Heagney, the gym manager of KX, London’s most exclusive gym where Prince Harry trained before his wedding and a 61-year-old Hugh Grant currently works out. “Although it’s important to not follow the exact same formulas they did when they were younger - strength and conditioning is, for me, of highest priority for the over 60s, as that’s when bone mineral density can be an issue”
A range of studies show how important working on blood pressure, endurance and flexibility becomes as we age. One team of medics followed a 90-year-old woman in a nursing home and found that 12 weeks of strength training took the equivalent of 20 years off her thigh muscle age, resulting in improved walking and mobility.
Auriens - a newly built residential development in Chelsea’s Dovehouse Street that has been described as the most expensive retirement home in Britain - is clearly hoping its residents hop around like spring chickens. You have to be over 65 to qualify for a room at Auriens, and you’ll need quite a nest egg too. Apartments – there are 56 in all – start at £13,750 per month for a one-bedroom (900ft2), and rise to £48,000 a month for the 2,000ft2 penthouse on the top floor. None are currently available for sale - this is strictly rental only.
The first residents arrived in September and got a lot more than just a place to live. Auriens is reminiscent of the way ageing dowagers of the past lived - those who would move into a suite at Claridge’s, that is, and order champagne for breakfast - just a lot healthier. Its on-site facilities include hair and beauty salons, a 15m pool and a therapy pool, a library with a Steinway, a sauna with one full salt-brick wall, an 18-seater cinema, a restaurant, a bar, a speakeasy - and, of course, a state-of-the-art gym.
“At Auriens clients work very hard on their physical health, it’s just the parameters that are slightly different in comparison with people in say their 20s and 30s,” says Gideon Remfry, the director of the wellness team at Auriens, and a man who has spent his career working with Olympians and athletes from the America’s Cup team.
“At first we were worried about how to make a gym where everyone was over 65 relevant but in fact it’s almost been more rewarding as you see such an incredible difference in strength and mobility in such a short time. I have realised that you have to make sure you test your clients all the time to see what base they are starting from, and then how their strength has grown.”
One of the most important things Remfry looks at when it comes to training older groups is active ageing - this doesn’t mean turning back the clock but, as he puts it, “adding life to your years rather than years to your life”. He begins with cellular health: taking a small blood test and finding out whether cells are stressed, and how much inflammation there is.
“It’s a simple finger-tip blood test but it’s so informative about anti-oxidant status,” he says, “so that way we can get a clearer idea about what food and exercise regime we need to create for our clients.”
Remfry emphasises the importance of tailoring any exercise regime to the individual - particularly in older age groups. Whereas healthy younger adults tend to benefit from a straight mix of strength and cardio, older people can have quite a wide range of separate needs that need addressing.
“We assess every client individually,” he says. “We had one 83-year-old woman who moved into Auriens who had never been to a gym before. She had very high cellular stress and was essentially immobile. We started her with walking and Pilates and within two weeks we could see a difference and so could move onto harder exercises.”
Sometimes he also finds himself battling against doctor’s advice, noting that he had one 75-year-old client who had been banned by medical professionals from playing tennis again because of a bad back. “I did a good physio and stretching programme and he was back on the courts in two weeks. There’s a lot of misinformation out there that leaves older people wary of hurting themselves, when actually stopping a sport they enjoy is far more harmful.”
Equally, more time gives older gym members an advantage over younger working adults who can just squeeze in a 30-minute class before work or picking the children up from school - and is why they often become star performers in classes such as Pilates that are all about commitment rather than youthful energy. “For me, the key difference with the over-60s is that they have so much more time,” says Heagney. “The goals stay the same but the pace they set out to achieve them changes.”
As for why it is that older clients are paying more attention to their health than ever before - both men agree that much of this is to do with the pandemic, and the fact that most people of retirement age have felt more vulnerable over the last two years. Exercise feels like one way of getting some control back.
And for those of us who can’t afford six-figure tailored exercise programmes? Try exercises that focus on strength training and weight lifting. “Active ageing is all about strength,” says Remfry. “The more muscle you have, the stronger you will be - there are mitochondria in skeletal muscle cells that honestly are the elixir for healthy ageing.”
And - it turns out - an elixir you don’t even need to be a millionaire to get hold of.