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We're Growing Older: Product Designers, Take Note!

March 12, 2014

Credit: Margaret Boyle
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The new equipment at my local gym sure looks good.

Rows of sleek, ergonomic cable machines, a matching set of free-weight stands and platforms, and a bunch of cool new aerobic machines: bikes, treadmills, rowing machines, stair climberseven one that mimics skate-skiingmany of them with programmable screens that let you select and pretend to cruise along through workout environment.

I've had a membership there for 30 years. I love the place, with its warm, welcoming environment that attracts people of all ages, races, abilities and income levels. I love the fact that it accomodates people with physical and cognitive disabilities.

The problem?

Despite my considerable overall strength, built during 30 years of heavy weight training, I find it painful, time-consuming, and in some instances humiliating, to use the new weight-training equipment.

Like 50 million aging Americans, I’ve got osteoarthritis, which has slowly worsened during the past couple of decades. The small joints in my thumbs, wrists and fingers scream with the pain of pushing or pulling the innocent-looking orange buttons and pull cables that adjust the machines to fit me. Adjusting the height of the racks that hold the Olympic bars in place is an agonizing task that involves pulling a pin while simultaneously lifting a heavy iron rack with one hand.

Furthermore, I have to stoop and squint to read the tiny little numbers that tell me where to plug in the pins that line up the racks that support the Olympic bars or tell the machines how many pounds to move up and down.

It’s no fun having to ask the staff (mostly fit young men) or less-disabled 20-something members for help setting up each and every station. Like many younger folks, what they believe they’re communicating politely and respectfully can come across as patronizing or cheerily dismissive, especially when delivered in a kind of slow baby-talk, as if I had a cognitive impairment.

In short, the expensive new equipment makes me feel much more disabled than I really am. I never had to ask for help setting up the old free weights and benches, since they didn’t require much effort from my small joints.

Shame on the equipment designers!

If the equipment designers had trialed their prototypes on people like me, they’d have learned dozens of ways to improve them: larger, easier-to-push buttons and pulls; big, brightly colored numbers to obviate squinting; more ways to position the hand grips, and numerous other small things.

And guess what? Changes that would make the equipment more inviting for aging arthritics would also make it more useful for pregnant women, overweight and obese people, people with developmental disabilities, oldsters improving their strength for the activities of daily living, and the folks of all ages who use the equipment for rehabilitation (e.g., injured athletes, middle-aged weekend warriors, accident victims, wounded veterans).
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The U.S. is aging rapidly—the 65-and-older population is expected to double to 70 million (one in five people) by 2030. Public health advocates rank exercise as the number one health measure that can help keep people well and healthy at any age.

Fitness-equipment designers shouldn’t postpone catering, even pandering, to this vast and growing market. In fact, designers in general are going to have to modify every aspect of our physical environments to accommodate this massive demographic shift.

The automaker Nissan has an idea that should spread to designers of all products: “a cumberbome, strap-on  ‘aging suit,’ that gives young auto designers the feel of driving with a bulging belly, arthritic joints and shaky balance. The suit—including goggles that distort color and mimic the effects of cataracts—is used to simulate the physical effects of aging as designers work to make future vehicles safer and more comfortable.

But give us some style! Most of the stuff I see in those independent-living catalogues purveying household items for people with disabilities looks designed for people of the WW II generation.

Boomers may be aging, but they don't want to look or feel old. They aren’t going to go en masse for stuff that screams “geezer-gear.”

So, designers, make things and create environments with the versatility to work for people of all ages and abilities, but make it elegant, cool, and hip, and ring up the profits.

 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

Comments

I agree! That's why I moved

By Tamra GS

I agree! That's why I moved to a C***** gym--Not trying to plug a particular gym but at the one I attend they seem to work with an older group of women. We help one another out--and up off the floor if necessary--and no machines need to be reset each time.
I have also found myself pulling the price tags off lower shelves in stores so I can see the price. Unfortunately, I still have to just about put my nose on the glass of the fish counter to see how much it is per pound!

Hi Margaret, You bring up

By Lisa B919

Hi Margaret,
You bring up some really good points. So what do we do? I'm now in the "boomer" group and while I'm not suffering from arthritis or similar, I do see a value in improving the design and overall useability of gym equipment because there is a need and there will be a need for me soon enough. I think Nissan is really onto something with their 'aging suit.' My hunch is designers are designing for only young and healthy folks who have more disposable income to purchase and use this equipment. My question is, what do we do? How can we act collectively and proactively to see your ideas move forward?

Thank you for addressing this, it's something I never would have thought of but again, these are very good and valuable points. Now let's see what we can do about it...

Good questions, Lisa!  For

By Margaret Boyles

Good questions, Lisa! 

For me, the obvious first step in creating collective change involves awareness. Nothing changes unless people identify a need for change and make the argument(s) for it in public spaces where others can listen, refine or expand the arguments, and discuss ways to move forward. Speak up! Speak out! Join in!

In many instances, the market itself will spark a radical design innovation. If many people can't use or don't like your product, social media will gear up its complaint network. Your product won't sell, and your young engineers will be forced back to their drawing boards, perhaps remembering to test their new models on the disgruntled populations.

I plan to write more about the need for design changes throughout our social/economic/political fabric, not only to accomodate our aging population, but also to address problems in broad arenas such as professional healthcare, the food system, environmental conservation, workplace flexibility, and teaching/learning.

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