How to train and retain older adults with Ron Dorr

Find out how Ron Dorr developed an exercise program and marketed fitness for older adults.

When it comes to knowing his target market, Ron Dorr, owner of Quality of Life Fitness and Ageless Balance has got it down. Follow along to learn how Ron began his fitness journey, started his own business, found his niche in older adults, and what advice he has for other trainers coaching older adults online. And if you want to know the story of the photo below, you're going to want to keep reading all the way to the end.

Ron Dorr and his cat lead an fitness class

Raise your paws if your pet loves to jump into your classes.

What made you start a fitness business for older adults

I have always been in business. I was a customer service manager and we built customer service departments for large companies. My professional life had nothing to do with it but every waking moment I spent networking, exercising, and being active.

I have been active and in fitness all my life. I just can't sit. I am yoga certified but got bored teaching yoga and there's no way I could stay motivated and do it regularly. I have to be moving. My personality is just way different. I have race bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, I have run marathons, I am constantly active, I hiked the Appalachian Trail.

As I was getting older I started noticing I couldn't do things I was able to do before. I read this book by Joel Friel and it said, 'because your body's dying basically', and it's true. The first chapter was the hardest to read about all the things that are going wrong. Then it started talking about how you could overcome that, and that was a big one for me.

Treatment of older adults in larger gym environments

I went to Anytime Fitness once, a large yet boutique-style gym in many small towns. They have trainers and make their money off of personal training, about $50 for half an hour. However, they actually have one training program that all the trainers have to use with just a little bit of adjustment for customers. They had liability suits from people getting injured so they stopped the personal trainers from being able to create their own programs, and went with the one-for-all model. There I was training and there was a small group fitness class of people who were probably in their fifties and sixties, overweight trying to do box jumps. And they couldn't do that type of physical activity.

One woman was trying to get down and she almost fell, and she could barely get down much less jump. I saw that and it was horrendous. I went another time and I was on the treadmill and this woman next to me who is about the same age and looked good as far as shape goes, and she starts the treadmill at seven miles an hour, and the personal trainer is running her baseline and he doesn't stop her, he let her go. She's having a hard time keeping up, and finally shuts it down and collapses, not on the floor, but over the head of the treadmill and she's just done. She did some more training with him and she ended up limping out of there.

"There is no one advocating for older adults"

And here I was thinking she's never going to be able to do exercise and physical activity again and she's going to think it's her fault that she can't. It's just sad because old adults are not getting any respect in the US. They get no respect and there's nobody out there advocating for them in fitness. In the states, we have this thing that 55 is old and anything past that. So a five-year-old and 25-year-olds are different, but 55 to 75 is the same thing. So I thought, 'you know what, I need to work with older adults and get them.'

What steps did you have to go through to get your classes up and running?

Earning a certification to teach group fitness

When I decided to go into fitness it worked out really well where I got early retirement, so I was able to take that time and go back to school. I got my fitness certification, found group fitness and absolutely fell in love with it. The first time I did it, it fit my personality so perfectly. That hybrid of group fitness and personal training together is a huge benefit. I first started teaching in civic organisations, senior centres, and places like that. I also work with municipalities and that's where I ended up finding my niche.

Getting software and the business up and running

I started using TeamUp only a couple of months after launching my business. I needed management software right away. As soon as I started going live almost two years ago, I knew I needed a reminder and I needed membership and attendance pieces. I was working with 200 people a week live, and I told some of them that I was starting a new business. I got a bunch of people who were afraid to be going to a gym. Some older adults wanted an exercise routine but are totally intimidated by a gym, so they now come to my Zoom classes. The other people I get are husbands and wives which I absolutely love. You're not going to get that in-person class.

Finding clients to sign up

Between the cities of Madison and Cottage Grove, I work with the senior citizen centres and recreation departments to advertise my classes. I advertise in their recreation guides once every six months or so, put my classes in there, have them manage the registration, and then once a month they send me a list of how many people want to take a class. I have one class and that class can cover everybody. So I give that to them and it's no additional cost to me to take on new people, and then I bill them at the end of the month for however many people was there from their facility. So if Cottage Grove sends me 50 people, I bill them 25 dollars for 12 classes, which is super cheap, 12 classes at 45 minutes each.

My goal from the beginning was to work with older adults and people who were not in a position to be able to afford expensive classes. I have scholarships available and no one gets turned away. I also have people who will fund other people if I need to. When finding clients, I go out to small communities and encourage them to offer an older adult program. They then come back to me with those people.

Ron Dorr leads an in-person training session

What are your best tips for hosting online classes with an older clientele?

I have 85 and 90-year-old clients who are using Zoom for online classes. 75 and over are usually my clientele, with an average around age 80 and they're using Zoom and it's awesome. My mom is my key gauge, so every time I do something new, I call my mom and say, 'can you do this or not?' She is terrified of technology so if I can get her to understand it, then they can get it.

Shower them with support and make them feel safe

I baby my clients completely. They're scared to death to use technology. We have sat there and told our parents "don't use a computer, don't open your email, they're going to get your name and take all of your money." So of course they're afraid of the internet, and I have had to make it safe for them.

Focus on delivering the best service no matter the medium

It's the personality, it's not the medium. There are bad group trainers in the person who will beat up an older adult in person. I do in-person classes because I do need to see the mistakes people are making, so I still do some of those. So then when I go back to my Zoom classes, I think of the mistakes people are making and I am big on saying not to do that.

I am forever cueing, every second. Younger people hate that, but older people love it because it reminds them when they forget. It's up to us as the trainers, we make the difference.

Get the setting right

We have to have multiple cameras or move constantly so that they can see us from different directions. We need to have lighting right and have a nice background. Getting the right camera, the right lens so that you can be seen and that you can move from side to side. It all plays into it. There's a lot of things you may have to take into consideration if you want to do well.

Make it easy for them to attend class

It's not rocket science, but I make it so that all they have to do is click one time 15 minutes before every class, and that's it. I handle absolutely everything else.

Keep reading to see how Ron builds his client engagement

Over-communication with older adults is key

I get to go into all of my classes, treat class like a small group training, no matter how many people are in it. I just talk the entire time about form, about which muscles are doing what.

What older adults love is to know what is happening when they're doing it. Younger people want vigorous intensity, to come and sweat and leave. This is a social activity, plus they want to learn, so they love that I'm talking constantly. I love baby boomers because we have a better sense of humour. We're more open to things that can be said and use common sense to figure things out.

Check-in regularly with clients

I got back once every six months to everybody and check-in and it brings a lot of people back. I take care of all the renewals, and I send out emails the week before, I don't hound them, but I remind them what's coming.

Market your business and get out there

I have found working with municipalities to be really good. I have also gotten a lot of exposure through networking. I'm in the newspaper and I have an ad coming up, and I have an interview in an older adult magazine in Dane County and will have an ad right next to that. I take advantage of all those opportunities.

What is your best tip for retaining older adults?

There’s a big audience of baby boomers out there who want this type of service and fitness. You need to have a sense of humour and reference things they grew up with. Commercials, TV shows, music from the ’60s and ’70s… This is what keeps them engaged and coming back. You gotta give them more than exercises. Here’s an image from today’s Halloween class. It’s Richard Simmons from the ’80s.

Ron Dorr dressed as Richard Simmons for Halloween 2021

Ron aka Richard Simmons

What are you looking forward to in the future for your business?

I'm working towards a hybrid model. What I have been doing is taking my exercise program with me on the road. When I go on vacation I can run a hotspot through my phone so I have been doing classes remote now too. I'm really ready now. It's just learning how to teach with a classroom and a camera, people have had a problem with that because some people have felt they are being ignored, so I still have to learn that. But I have been able to start doing hybrid-type classes and doing live classes remotely.

Customer stories you don't want to miss

Ron shared a few stories that warmed our hearts

One woman came to me and said that her doctor told her that she was going to have arthritis in her ankle forever, but that after three weeks in my classes it was gone.

There was a woman who used to go to the lake with her husband before he died and now she couldn't get to the lake anymore because he couldn't help her. She did not feel stable. I work really heavily on ankle strength, feeling ground, Tai Chi exercises. And after a few months, she was able to walk on her own on the grass to the lake where she and her husband used to go. She thought it was the greatest thing in the world because she could do that on her own, thinking she'd never be able to do it again.

...and made us chuckle

One time my cat came running up to me with all four paws, right one me, right on the chest and I got a video and it was really funny. My cats will come in and lick my head when I am on the floor and will wander around. I have one cat that will come in and bat my microphone or lay on me while I am on the floor.

Thank you for sharing Ron! To find out more about running online classes, learn more about our Zoom integration or sign up for a free 30-day trial