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To be successful, new wellness initiatives need to attract, engage, and retain participants over an extended period. Success involves a careful examination of the resident population and resources at your facility and a targeted approach to engaging that population in a new initiative. This chapter provides information on how to recruit participants into the STEP program and keep them engaged in the program once they have begun.

  • Assess the need for the STEP program at your facility and whether there is “room” for this activity given existing programmatic commitments.
  • Identify a target population that is appropriate for STEP.
  • Identify recruitment strategies and materials that will appeal to seniors in your community.
  • Define approaches to maintaining interest in the program once seniors have enrolled.
  • Target population: Seniors at your facility likely to benefit from participating in the STEP program.
  • Marketing materials and strategies: Written materials, presentations, and other approaches aimed at encouraging seniors in the target population to participate in the STEP program.
  • Recruitment: Formally entering a senior into the STEP program.
  • Retention: Ensuring that seniors in the STEP program remain active in the program over an extended period.
  • Many existing resources and groups can assist staff in identifying seniors who might benefit from participating in the STEP program (e.g., Resident Services, Resident Council).
  • It is important to understand how the STEP program is different from existing programs in your community and to communicate the differences to potential participants.
  • Marketing materials should be exciting and use ample photos and pictures.
  • It is important to use a combination of strategies to recruit participants, but in-person interactions are often the most effective way to get participants to join the program.
  • A key element of retaining participants in the STEP program involves letting them know that you care and are invested in their health and wellness.

Ask permission to attend department meetings to give a brief announcement about the program. Chat with individual employees whenever you meet them in an effort to promote the program, and convey excitement in your tone: This program can help to encourage greater physical activity among residents by providing program structure, support, monitored and self-driven exercise, and the skills to make long term changes.

  • Floor representatives.
  • Resident Council.
  • Bible study group/leaders.
  • Ask the leaders of other group activities if you may drop in. Most groups welcome a guest speaker. These groups may include:
    • Bingo
    • Bridge
    • Floor meetings
    • Quilters
    • Alzheimer’s support group

Using a person’s name is another way to gain trust and enlist a friend. Many residents feel more at home when you use their first name. If in doubt, ask for a preference. If you have a large facility or lots of turnover and your facility has a photo album of residents, make a black and white copy to help you learn names.

Request access to available data on the resident population. Sometimes this is housed in Medical Records, but you may find it in Resident Services or Nursing. Remember, HIPAA was not designed to prevent you from doing your job. It was designed to protect the facility’s licenses and each licensed professional within. This information is part of your job. You do “need to know.” Always ask permission from the department head before inquiring of their staff. Let them know that you will maintain the confidentiality of the information and keep it locked up, but don’t be afraid to request it.

Review your community’s activity calendar from the last 6 months to see what is available to participants already. Even if you have been to an activity hundreds of times or are familiar with the calendar, review it with new eyes. Consider the number of individuals attending each event or outing. Do you have a pool of active participants or “joiners” and are there enough of them to support STEP? Are there less active residents who, if approached correctly, might be interested in increasing their activity?

Take particular note of any activities that include physical movement. What type of movement? Frequency? Duration? Level of intensity? Compare what you find with what the STEP program will offer. If you are not carving out new territory with STEP, people will want to hear the differences and be convinced of the benefits of trying something new. Your opportunity to explain will come when someone says, “No thanks, I already walk with my friend once a week” or “I do a water aerobics class on Tuesday. I don’t need more exercise than that, do I?”

In giving presentations, whether individually or with a group, you can be very effective by communicating with pictures of people in this age group as they exercise. If you use photos, be sure people are smiling or at least not frowning. The image of a resident who is happy about fitness can also be a useful communication tool for staff, especially if they personally think exercise is torture and cannot imagine promoting fitness among residents whom they perceive as frail.

The best photos are those of people whom your target audience actually knows, so consider using photos of participants in previous exercise programs. Although they cannot comment on the effectiveness of STEP, it will help if residents recognize people they know enjoying exercise. Just be sure to ask their permission before you distribute their photos.

Once you have established STEP, create a binder of large smiling photos of program participants with testimonials in their own words. Take it with you to visit new move-ins in their apartment and to resident meetings. Even if the person is not familiar, potential participants often identify with someone who also lives in the facility. It helps if the person who gave a testimonial is willing to answer questions from new or newly interested residents.

Consider what methods you will use (see Recruitment Methods, below) and produce the appropriate flyers, table tents, newsletter announcements, etc. Keep them simple and to the point, but compelling. Prepare yourself for in-person presentations and consider what supporting materials you will need to bring. Participants may want more information before they commit to STEP but do not need all the program details’ mention the type of exercise, the time commitment (days in class), and especially the benefits.

Recruiting for new activities in a retirement community is most effective as a live presentation. In groups or with individuals, make eye contact and smile. Make the discussion interactive. Also make it personal and relevant. Pose relevant questions: Are you concerned about your balance? Would you like to learn to prevent falls? Anticipate the residents’ questions and prepare inspiring and compelling answers.

Over the phone, you have to options: the cold call and the warm call. If you do not know the person, state your business up front. Introduce yourself and request a time to meet in person to discuss the STEP program at your facility. If you know people well or even somewhat, always chat with them first about their life or activities. Then ask if they have heard about this new program yet and offer a brief explanation without making a sales pitch. Invite them to a group event for more details or offer to meet with them in person. If residents seem to have difficulty hearing you over the phone, consider knocking on their door while wearing your name badge or asking another resident who knows them and is enthusiastic about the program to share the information.

  • Post flyers in public places, such as dining areas, activity areas, the office door of the property manager, and the door of the library.
  • Make flyers colorful.
  • Don’t overload a bulletin board. If you put something up, take something down.
  • Keep your material fresh.
  • Be sensitive to rules about kinds of tape, not posting on doors, or whatever facility protocol you follow.
  • Consider asking the dietary manager if you can put out table tents to promote the program.

Written materials should be in large font, which often means fewer words. Don’t try to explain the whole program in the newsletter. Just write an exciting headline about the upcoming event you’re hosting to discuss STEP. Remember to include free food, if possible, or at least coffee and tea. It is better to distribute handouts at the presentation than to tackle the details in a newsletter, which may overwhelm or discourage potential participants.

  • When you approach potential participants, find a balance between expressing enthusiasm about the program and listening carefully to their needs.
  • Timing is everything. Approach them when you know it is convenient for them to talk or after a fun activity when they’re feeling enthusiastic about facility programs.
  • If you can have fun talking about the program, then your potential residents will want to join.
  • You should use existing relationships with residents to discuss interest and identify others who may be interested. Start with those who you know will be interested. Once they agree to sign up, ask permission to use their name as you tell their friends and neighbors about the program. In this setting, name dropping can go a long way.
  • Ask residents who have committed to join the program if they would be willing to help you with presentations. Have the resident demonstrate a simple leg extension or chair stand or talk about the center’s walking course. This is a fantastic way to gain interest among nonexercisers.
  • If you post marketing materials, they must include the name and phone number of the contact person at your facility. More recently, independent apartment residents have asked for an e-mail address. Again, remember to have an optional large-font copy of anything you print.
  • Remember that repetition is effective: Newsletters, calendars, posters, casual conversation, presentations, reminder slips, phone calls, e-mails, and other methods all work well in concert.

Are potential participants contemplating increasing activity levels and do they need more information from a professional? Are they ready psychologically but need to prepare by purchasing tennis shoes or finding a support buddy? It is important to determine if the senior is ready to consider making the lifestyle changes that are fundamental to the STEP program.

Take time to consider each individual’s physical readiness. You do not want to engage people who are risk takers and might hurt themselves due to denial about a physical limitation. Similarly, you do not want to try to recruit someone who is not appropriate for the program due to temporary or chronic physical difficulties. Know your clients. More information on safety considerations is available in Chapter 6.

Maintaining physical activity over a long period can be just as difficult as starting an exercise program for the first time. Once participants have started the STEP program, it is important that staff take steps to keep them involved. For example:

  • Be enthusiastic. Participants will “follow the lead” of the STEP program leader and if the leader does not appear invested in participants’ continued engagement in the program, participants are not likely to continue investing their time in STEP.
  • Let participants know you care about their health, wellness, and continued participation. The importance of the one-on-one relationship between the program leader and staff and participants can’t be overstated.
  • Assist participants in troubleshooting and problem solving when they encounter obstacles. Their willingness to continue is tied to their progress in achieving their goals. Support in the face of a challenge will encourage them to persevere instead of quit.
  • Take an active interest outside of class. Mention the program and inquire about progress when you pass participants in the hall or see them at other activities. A little extra effort on the leader’s part goes a long way toward making participants feel committed and fulfilled.
  • Continue to advertise STEP classes and walking groups in resident newsletters, bulletin boards, and other announcements so that the program continues to have new people and new enthusiasm.
  • The American Council on Exercise offers a certification program for Group Fitness Instructors, Personal Trainers, Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultants, and Advanced Health & Fitness Specialists. They offer continuing education courses for training older populations and individuals with chronic conditions. 1-858-576-6500 or
  • The American College on Sports Medicine (ACSM), part of the Active Aging Partnership, offers resources on starting an exercise program and on Federal Physical Activity Guidelines.
  • The International Council on Active Aging publishes the Journal on Active Aging online and in print, which contains many relevant articles. They will send you a sample upon request. 1-866-335-9777 or
  • Internet Citation: Chapter 5: Recruitment of Participants. Content last reviewed October 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.