Health clubs are no longer the exclusive territory of the young and buff. Walk into a gym on any given day and you'll see a representative number of the 50+ crowd.

When Miriam Uni-Karp decided to join a health club after knee replacement surgery, she knew what she didn't want a lot of sweaty, testosterone-laden weight lifters, a staff that knew more about fashion than they did about physiology, or a club where, at 77, she'd feel out of place. "I was looking for a comfortable environment," the Massachusetts resident says.

Changes Abound

Fortunately, Uni-Karp found that gyms have changed a lot from the "muscle beach" days. "It's very, very, comfortable," she says of her new club, Wellbridge, adding that the center has a knowledgeable staff and a variety of programs for all ages.

Uni-Karp's discovery isn't unique. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) estimates that 14.2 million people age 55 and older exercise on a regular basis, and many fitness enthusiasts belong to gyms. Whatever your reason for exercising—social, health, or stress relief—you'll find health clubs rushing to meet your needs.

Depending on how long it's been since you stepped inside a gym, you might be surprised at the changes. Health clubs have become conscious of the desires of older members. They are actively recruiting people from the 50+ age group and they are creating special programs and tailored information for them.

You're Not Alone

Don't fear that you'll be the only one with gray hair amidst a sea of spandex and college T-shirts. Most club memberships reflect the demographics of the surrounding area. In Arizona, a state known for its high retiree population, Naturally Women Health Centers estimates that at least 50% of their clients are seniors, according to spokeswoman Fie Maxwell.

Ann Marie Miller, fitness training manager for New York Sports Clubs, says while some of their clubs are in areas where they expect little enrollment from older folks, their suburban clubs have higher participation—20% or so.

The time of day you work out influences the demographic mix of your fellow exercisers. For instance, clubs typically experience an upsurge in younger members during early mornings and weekday evenings. Uni-Karp says, "I'm retired, so I go during the day, when most of the people working out are also retired."

If you aren't sure, ask the salesperson about that club's demographics. A quick glance at the club's event calendar or class schedule will show to whom their activities are targeted. Health clubs offering programs for mature members are more likely to have larger populations of people in your age group.

Just for You

In addition to finding a club membership of all sizes and ages, you'll also find a variety of programs appealing to the over-50 crowd. Brandon Proust of Bally Total Fitness, a national chain with over 350 locations, says its older members are interested in exercises that are easy on the joints, such as low-impact aerobics and a cycling class called spinning.

Many health clubs provide a one-on-one health assessment and personalized workout consultation as part of the membership package. Bally and Wellbridge give all enrollees an individual program set-up that creates a workout designed with your fitness level and goals in mind. This is especially important if it has been a long time since you've exercised or you aren't sure how to use the equipment. Proper training is essential to ensure you are comfortable with the exercises, and that your exercise routine is in line with your capabilities and goals.

New York Sports Clubs' Miller says they offer a special series of classes for mature members called "Forever Fit." Starting with exercises that can be done in a chair for the lower mobility group and progressing to aerobics, this plan gives participants the opportunity to socialize and get fit at the same time. "Our instructors are specially trained to deal with issues that might come up in the over-55 group, and we feature approved exercises and techniques that are safe and tested for this age group," says Miller.

Maxwell of Naturally Women says the female-only chain offers classes in chair aerobics, senior aerobics, and "stretch and tone." "Our water aerobics classes are also especially popular with seniors because they are so easy on the bones. We also offer ]]>yoga]]> at several times during the day and this seems to be popular also," Maxwell adds.

What's It Going to Cost?

Another thing that might cause your heart to beat a little faster is the cost of some gyms. Depending on where you live and what amenities your club offers, enrollment fees can be hundreds of dollars, and monthly fees can range from $20 to $100 or more. Many clubs offer discounted rates to seniors, so if no one mentions it, ask!

Proust of Bally Total Fitness says the chain tries to offer seniors the lowest possible rates. "We find that seniors make up a large percentage of our membership, so we try to offer them an incentive with lower rates," he says.

Make sure you understand exactly what is included in your fee, so you aren't paying for anything you don't want, like locker rental or access to the tennis courts if you don't play. Also inquire about specials; many clubs will waive the one-time initiation fee if you are transferring from another health club, or if you sign up with a spouse or a friend.

Before You Begin

Before you sign on the dotted line, visit several clubs to see where you feel most comfortable. Most clubs will offer prospective members free passes so you can actually try the gym before you decide to join. Schedule your visit for the time of day you plan to use the facilities so you can see who is there at that time and how crowded it is. After all, your heart won't get much of a workout if you spend most of your visit waiting in line to use the equipment.

Beginning an exercise program can be a daunting task. By choosing the right club, though, you give yourself an edge with qualified staff, good equipment, and like-minded colleagues. A good health club can help you get your body where you want it—and maybe have fun in the process too.