new thinking for older adults
Fun and effective choreo design

A studio full of older participants doesn’t have to dictate a slow and simple class. Considering the following points will enable you to instruct a fun and effective session that caters to all abilities, says Paula Todd.

When we design choreography for older adult group exercise classes, we just need to keep it simple, straightforward and make sure the music is slow, right? Well, maybe that’s right some of the time, but just because the class is made up of people who are over 50, don’t assume that they cannot handle more complex choreography. Some of them may have been doing ‘aerobics’ classes since before you were born and love performing pivots and grapevines to music they can sing along with!

As with every class you instruct, teach to the people in front of you! One of the beauties of freestyle instruction is the flexibility to adapt your class plan to suit your participants. If you have a group of frail, aged participants then, by necessity, you will need slow music (120bpm) and simple moves with gentle progressions. If you have a class of regular, loyal participants who are able-bodied, then why not challenge them? I have taught men in their eighties to grapevine and E-Z walk with complex arm lines, and they love it!

Know why you are there

When designing choreography for your older adult classes, think back to why your participants are attending. Their reasons may include: improving their cardiovascular fitness; strength training; improving balance; having a laugh and social contact; the enjoyment of moving to music; improving their coordination – the list goes on! So, in deciding how to structure your class, choose moves which will address these goals.

Music selection is very important. Ideally, music which is uplifting, with a good strong beat and that is known to your class members – e.g. ‘Big Band’ music for your 70 and 80 year olds, rock and roll for those in their sixties, and music from the 1970s for members aged in their 50s. Of course, as the instructor, you need to enjoy the music too – if you are wincing as you are teaching, the class will pick up on your half-hearted vibe.

Keep it varied

Each block of choreography you instruct could have a different focus. For example, one block could have a strong arm line, which will help lift heart rates, another could have a turn (slow or quick, depending on your participants’ abilities) to train balance, and a third could have some more complex footwork to improve co-ordination.

Consider the elements we use to layer choreography: direction changes, rhythm variations, intensity and impact options, arm lines and turns. Use them as you see fit, but always start with the simpler options, and invite your participants to stay with them, should they not feel confident about adding the progressions you offer.

Go for balance

It’s a good idea to have a change of lead leg built into each block. Too often, a class will competently manage a block with a right leg lead, but when it changes to the left, it’s as if they’ve never seen the moves before! You may need to break down the learning progressions from the start when switching to a left leg lead. If you teach it all to the right, and then just say, ‘OK, all to the left now!’, you may have chaos in the class.

If you have a change of lead leg in each block, you may wish to ‘splice’ the blocks together for extra challenge. You will need an odd number of blocks for this to work – I find that three blocks per class works best for most groups.

The following two blocks of choreography feature both simple and more complex variations and can be used with music from 122 to 130bpm.

"One of the beauties of freestyle instruction is the flexibility to adapt your class plan to suit your participants."

The most important element is you!

When teaching older adults, it is critical that you are genuine and authentic. Pretending that you are happy to be there when you would much rather be teaching a high intensity class at 146bpm to a younger crowd will be immediately obvious to your participants. And don’t patronise or speak down to your class by calling the women ‘dear’ or the men ‘love’.

Make the time and effort to learn your participants’ names and a little bit about each of them – they will really appreciate it. Most importantly, know their individual injuries, limitations and restrictions so you can tailor moves to suit them and prevent further injuries. It is also important to speak clearly and precisely, and to check that your microphone and music volumes are correct – ask the class if you are unsure.

Above all, make sure that you come to teach your older adult classes in a happy and positive frame of mind. For some participants, your class may be the highlight of their week, so promise yourself that you will deliver the best class possible every single time!


Paula Todd, BSW
A fitness professional for over 16 years, Paula brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her educational presentations. She is a group exercise instructor, gym instructor and personal trainer with a passion for working with older adults. Paula has also worked as a professional counsellor and social worker.