The entrepreneur behind Activage

Kate Parker talks to the entrepreneur behind Activage – a fitness centre and training academy in Sweden that has been set up to cater exclusively for seniors.

What is Activage, and what inspired you to create it?
The idea for Activage came five years ago, borne out of a wish to help my dad when he fell sick with a joint and muscle disorder. I was travelling a lot with my work and couldn’t be with him as often as I wanted, but when I did visit I wanted us to do something positive together.

At the time, I was part of the management team of a big fitness company in the north of Sweden and knew something of the effects of training and exercise for older people. So when I visited my dad, I started with some simple exercises – and very quickly I could see it really helped. I therefore decided, together with my family, to hire a personal trainer to visit him a couple of times a week.

I started by talking to 15 or 20 personal trainers, but no-one wanted to take this job on. That was really frustrating. Many simply didn’t feel confident working with an older person, because it hadn’t been covered during their training.

I’m an entrepreneur – and the daughter of an entrepreneur – and to me this was really crazy! Here was a service I wanted to buy and it just wasn’t available. I knew I’d have to bring my heart and my entrepreneurial thoughts together to solve that.

Then my research began in earnest. If you wanted to work with seniors exclusively, where did you get your training? I found there were no comprehensive courses at that time – at most you might get an hour of instruction about working with older people within PT courses which lasted several weeks or months.

I could see a real gap in the market, and I started to talk to potential business partners, together with physiotherapists and researchers in the area of senior fitness.

We also began to work on a more thorough analysis of the market for senior fitness, both in the Nordic countries and in wider Europe, where there are more than 96 million people over the age of 65 years.

We also went to the US, where senior fitness is a huge, well-established industry; the education system produces specialists in senior fitness, while some gym chains operate exclusively for seniors.

How did you shape the Activage offering – what was the process?
We worked with Nina Lindelof – a physiotherapist and post-doctoral researcher at Sweden’s Umeå University – together with distance education organisation the International Sports Sciences Association to develop and build a qualification that would train people to become senior fitness specialists. Two years ago we launched the Activage Academy.

We also knew we wanted to open a gym for seniors, so we talked to more than 400 seniors who had never set foot inside a gym, asking them what would make them take that first step. People so rarely ask this target group directly what they want and need, and what they’re prepared to pay for personal training and gym membership.

We got some really interesting answers, but among the main reasons was that many seniors thought the music was too loud and everyone seemed so young. That isn’t helped by the way the industry chooses to market and portray itself; there are very few images depicting seniors. The people we spoke to simply didn’t feel the fitness industry represented them. They felt excluded.

How is your offering different?
We took the information we had gathered, built our concept, and opened our first flagship gym in Stockholm in March 2016. We have a completely different model compared to other gyms. Every feature of the space has been thought through, millimetre by millimetre, from the sound and lighting to the colour scheme and atmosphere.

Our gym is small – not more than 170sq m – and half of that is social space, where you can meet new and old friends and have a cup of coffee or something to eat. From our research among seniors, we know this social aspect is as important as the physical exercise.

Kristoffer Sjoberg, our gym manager, has been exercising with the over-90s for many years and is a well-known name in Sweden when it comes to senior strength training. With his knowledge and experience, together with the expertise of our physiotherapists, we’ve put together an offering that includes strength, balance and functional training, working with very small groups.

It’s really important that the gym is exclusively for seniors. All of our members need a personal trainer for the first eight weeks, so we can assess and reassure them that we have exactly the right kind of training to meet their specific needs.

How much does membership cost?
Weekly fees cost anything from 150 to 400 Swedish Krona (£14–£37 / €16–€42), depending on the amount of personal training each member requires.

Since we opened in March this year we’ve seen membership grow beyond our estimations, with 70 new members joining during the summer and more joining every week thereafter. We currently have about 150 members, with the aim of reaching 350 as our optimal number. Our youngest member is 58, and the oldest 88. The majority of our members are in their early 70s, and most have never been in a gym before.

Do you have plans to open more Activage centres?
We created the concept to make it scalable and we already have interested parties wanting to be franchisees. We’d like to open more Activage centres in Sweden in 2017 – either our own or franchises – and then expand into wider Europe, depending on investor input. Ultimately we want to have Activage gyms in every country in Europe.

What do you think is special about the Activage concept?
I don’t believe you’ll find any other company in Europe that caters exclusively to seniors, but we do this very successfully – both through the specialist training we offer at the Activage Academy and in the gym itself. This is our identity.

We’ve introduced a new target group to the fitness industry at a time when there’s increasing focus on the needs of an ageing population. It’s good for business, and importantly it also benefits wider society.

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