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The Globe and Mail

Online fitness program caters to aging baby boomers

With her new interactive fitness website Spirit50, Erin Billowits hopes to work through some of the challenges that have made it difficult for her clientele to stick to a consistent routine.

For every grandmother who hits the gym, eats well and maintains a robust social life, there are scores of baby boomers whose lifetimes of unhealthy habits are finally catching up with them.

Add empty nest syndrome to the mix and it's evident why, as the last of the boomer cohort prepares to hit the senior citizen mark, Canadian doctors fear an increased strain on the health-care system.

Erin Billowits has spent the past decade trying to keep these numbers down. As the owner of Vintage Fitness, the Toronto-based personal trainer and entrepreneur built a business model that focused solely on training clientele ages 55-plus at home instead of a gym.

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"There was a gap in the market for older adults and fitness in the home," she says. "I was the first to start that niche."

In January, Ms. Billowits launched Spirit50, an online offshoot of her personal training effort. With her new interactive fitness website, the Burlington, Ont. native hopes to work through some of the challenges that have made it difficult for her clientele to stick to a consistent routine.

"Many of my clients decided they couldn't afford it or their work or travel schedule meant they couldn't keep to a regular training schedule, but they really wanted to keep up with their fitness goals," she says.

Ms. Billowits conducted a pair of studies with Sheridan Elder Research Centre to gauge how seniors interact with technology and what their exercise habits and barriers looked like, respectively.

She found that 90 per cent of respondents had planned to make positive changes to their health, and 78 per cent were prepared to make small changes toward this goal on their own.

Using the results as a guide, she worked with a team to create an integrated database of 1,200 various daily routines with three levels of consistency: easy, medium, and difficult.

Each of the 7,000 exercises comes with a brief instructional video, and after answering a series of intake questions, like "Can you turn your head to see your blind spot?" and "Can you put your shoes on without sitting down?" clients can tailor their programs toward their specific needs, whether it's a target focus like increasing muscle tone in the legs, or preventative methods to reduce joint pain.

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A giant question still loomed, however: How could Spirit50 replicate the experience of an in-person trainer through an online medium?

It can't. The closest Spirit50 clients come to one-on-one training is unlimited access to e-mail support for $50 per month, or a consultation, support and several Skype or phone sessions for $125, a method Ms. Billowits says has been working well so far: Between Vintage Fitness and Spirit50, she has a current roster of 80 clients that she's attracted through word of mouth, SEO optimization, and a weekly blog to which she links both businesses.

"We really wanted to create a solution that wasn't just putting a bunch of information in that gets lost in the technological ether. The goal was to get clients connecting with someone as a trainer, just connecting in a different way."

But people who go the traditional in-person trainer route are willing to shell out $100 per training session because there's a skilled person in front of them, guiding them through routines and offering encouragement when they'd rather get un-anesthetized dentistry than finish another round of squats. There's no such luxury with the online model.

Ms. Billowits took this problem to Lennart Nacke's HCI Games Group at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ont. Dr. Nacke's lab researches how assistive playful technologies can enhance the lifestyle of older adults.

The team came up with an interactive gamification component that allows clients to collect points and gold, silver, or bronze stars, for each task completed. Additional animated components, like a graphic that moves up based on progress reported, makes it easy to track their progress based on day, week, or month.

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When people are able to see their points increase and maintain a visual record of their achievements, they're more likely to keep up the good work, she says.

"I wanted to incorporate some fun and that's where the gaming element came in. When you get down on the floor, you can see your points increase as you get close to your goal. Then I'll ask people what their points are for the day during our Skype or phone call."

For many, the website will be an experiment to gauge the effectiveness of self-directed fitness training. She feels strongly that people are likelier to complete their daily exercises if they know there's someone on the other line holding them accountable.

Whatever the outcome, however, she welcomes the challenge.

"It's exciting and interesting to figure out how to motivate people to move and not be at their front door."

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