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Exercise and Physical Activity

Partnering with Public Libraries to Offer Exercise Activities for Older Adults Toolkit

Interested in finding a place to offer exercise classes for older adults? Consider your local public library!

In addition to providing stellar health literacy collections and reference services, today’s public libraries are fast becoming places where older adults can participate in exercise and physical activities. Yoga, tai chi, aerobics classes, walking clubs and other physical activities designed specifically for older adults are increasingly being offered. Libraries often partner with local individuals or groups to provide these classes.

Why libraries? There are more than 17,000 public libraries in the United States, and they are trusted centers of lifelong learning. Helping people learn to stay active is just one more way that libraries support community education. Research by Let’s Move in Libraries has shown that more than 1,100 libraries in the U.S. and Canada offer physical activity programs, and 40 percent of them include activities for older adults. Partnerships have been key to the development of many of these physical activity programs, and they have helped libraries find new ways to knit communities together.

To understand how these partnerships work, in spring 2019, Let’s Move in Libraries, under the direction of University of North Carolina professor Dr. Noah Lenstra, conducted a survey with 96 public libraries in the United States and Canada to ascertain how they work with outside entities to host exercise programs for older adults. Bob’s Fun Fitness, LLC and Geri-Fit, LLC, both of which provide exercise programs for older adults at public libraries, contributed to the development of the survey.

The survey responses provide valuable insights into ways individuals and organizations can connect with libraries to provide physical activity programs for older adults. The overall finding is that some librarians now actively seek out partners for these types of programs, and partnerships work best when based on mutual understanding and a spirit of community collaboration.

Summaries of Responses to 15 Survey Questions

Questions 1–10 were directed to libraries that offer, or have offered, physical activity programming for older adults.

Question 1: What types of physical activity programs (if any) have you offered older adults at your library?

older adults with yoga mats in a libraryOlder adults enjoy free yoga at the Herring Run Branch, Enoch Pratt Free Library, in Baltimore. Image courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Libraries reported offering a wide range of physical activity programs for older adults. Here are the most frequently reported types of activities, in this order:

  1. Yoga (especially chair yoga)
  2. Tai Chi/Qigong
  3. Walking

Other types of classes included Zumba, line dancing, stretching, martial arts, pickleball, chair exercises, fall prevention, and many more.

Libraries are working to keep classes innovative and fresh, which helps draw people in and keeps them committed to taking part. Some of those creative ideas include:

  • Special events
  • Walks around town and at wildlife refuges
  • Yoga under the stars
  • Bingo cards with heath activities
  • Line dancing

For details about the many types of activities reported, click here.

Question 2: How often, on average, are the programs offered at your library?

Most reporting libraries offer exercise programs for older adults once a week or more. To see the range of program frequency among reporting libraries, click here.

Question 3: For how long have you offered any of these programs?

Most libraries have been offering exercise classes for older adults from between 3 and 5 years, although many have held them much longer. Said one respondent: “We have offered yoga for over 30 years.” Click here to see where your program might fit in.

Older adults exercise to a fitness D V D in a libraryA group of older adults exercise to a DVD at the public library in West Point Public Library in Iowa. Image courtesy of Dara Sanders, Library Director.

Question 4: Who runs the programs?

Libraries most often use paid outside contractors to lead their older adult exercise programs, but many rely on volunteers, library staff, and local community organizations. For more details on who actually runs these programs, click here.

Question 5: Have you worked with any of the following individuals or institutions to develop these programs?

Most libraries have worked in partnership with an outside entity. By far, most have partnered with an outside individual instructor.

Other frequently mentioned partners include:

  • Senior or community centers
  • Fitness studios
  • A range of other community organizations.

To see the many different types of partners working with libraries, click here.

Question 6: How did those relationships start?

Libraries’ own staff members, rather than outside entities, usually were the driving force in starting exercise programs in their facilities. This suggests that asking library staff about starting a new library-based exercise class for older adults may yield positive responses. If you’re interested in helping to offer exercise program for older adults, you might take these steps:

  1. Approach library staff about introducing this type of new programming.
  2. Emphasize that exercise programs for older adults quickly are becoming more and more common—and popular—in the public library setting.
  3. Suggest a mutually beneficial partnership with an organization or individual that can help make it happen.

For more details on how other library programs got started, click here.

Question 7: What challenges did you encounter in developing these partnerships with outside entities or in implementing their programs at your library?

The most commonly cited challenges to offering exercise programs for older adults in libraries were, in order of preference:

  1. Cost
  2. Space
  3. Community interest
  4. Liability
  5. Staff oversight

Click here to see how frequently libraries noted these different issues. For details on how they met these and other challenges, see question 8.

Question 8: What steps (if any) have you taken to address these challenges?

Older adults in a library walking clubEvery Monday and Wednesday morning a group of walkers gathers at the Walkertown Library in North Carolina to walk together for 30 minutes before socializing at the library. Image courtesy of Natalia Tuchina, Branch Manager of the Walkertown Library.

Libraries have found solutions for overcoming challenges in these and other areas. These areas are listed in descending order, based on the number of responses received.

  1. Funding—Used budget adjustments, donations, fundraising, Friends of the Library, and more
  2. Legal and liability Issues—Used disclaimers, waivers and liability forms, and consulted with library insurers and attorneys
  3. Partnerships—Used negotiations with individual instructors, volunteers, and outside groups. Also adjusted class schedules and locations
  4. Marketing—Used multiple communication sources and strategies, including advertising, social media, outreach to community groups, and commissions on aging
  5. Space—Used early room booking, alternate/additional spaces both within and outside the library setting
  6. Program Expansion—Added programs based on demand, secured space at other library and non-library locations
  7. Staffing—Used a designated staff liaison or staff to minimize cost. Also used library reorganization and scheduling
  8. Timing of Programs—Rotated schedules to attract new audiences, varied time for participant convenience, or kept them the same for consistency
  9. Community Interest—Tested interest, ceased program because of low interest

For details about meeting these and other challenges, click here.

Question 9: If an outside entity is interested in offering an exercise program for older adults at your library, what are the three most important steps you would recommend they take?

Libraries offered numerous suggestions for those wanting to offer exercise programs at their facilities. Responses fell into the following categories, in order of preference:

Older adults with fitness balls at a libraryEasy Exercise classes are offered every Friday morning at 10:00 at the Halifax, Virginia Public Library. Image courtesy of Halifax County-South Boston Public Library.
  1. Communication—Submission of a well-developed proposal and communicating clearly with staff about policy, expectations, and the application process
  2. Budget—Agreement on a reasonable price and/or potential for free or donation-only classes
  3. Instructors—Professional qualifications, credentials, insurance, understanding of older adults’ physical skill levels
  4. Scheduling—Advance planning, timing that suits schedule of older participants, a commitment to a designated schedule, space, and time, and more
  5. Marketing—Multiple approaches using advertising, co-promotion with library, working with outside organizations such as senior and community centers, senior residences, and partners to help spread the word
  6. Needs assessment—Assessment of community need, interest, suitable space. Used test classes to determine interest and get feedback
  7. Legal issues—Liability waivers, discussions with library insurers and attorney, medical clearance from doctor where necessary

Click here to see the entire list of individual responses to this question.

Question 10: What are three tips that are essential for the success of a collaboration between libraries and outside entities, in terms of offering exercise programs for older adults?

Here are the librarians’ responses, in order of preference:

  1. Instructors—Must have the skills, experience, reliability, and consistency to create a program that is welcoming to older adults and the commitment to stick to a plan and schedule, with flexibility to adjust as needed.
  2. Teamwork and mutual understanding—Are important to meet needs of all concerned: the instructor, library staff, and class participants
  3. Good communication—Interpersonal, written, and oral among instructor, library staff and patrons.
  4. Community interest—Good marketing strategies that attract the older, often diverse community, and commitment to time, schedule, and continuity.

Click here to see details of librarians’ recommendations and advice.

Questions 11-14 were directed to librarians who do not currently have physical activity programming for older adults.

Question 11: If you do NOT work with any outside entities to deliver physical activity programming for older adults at your library, are you open to that possibility in the future?

Older adults do a group fitness class at a libraryThe Kirkland Town Library in Clinton, New York, celebrates World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, an annual event held the last Saturday in April, with free Tai Chi at the library.

Nearly everyone answering this question said YES—another indication that librarians in your community might be open and receptive to your suggestion for introducing exercise programs for older adults in the library setting. This graph says it all.

Question 12: If you do NOT currently work with outside entities to deliver physical activity programming for older adults, what are three steps that an outside entity would need to take to make this partnership work at your library?

Librarians NOT currently working with an outside entity cited these as areas an outside entity would need to address for a successful collaboration, in order of preference:

  1. Communication and collaboration
  2. Agreement on budget and pricing
  3. Flexibility on scheduling and space requirements
  4. Instructor expertise, qualifications, and dependability
  5. Assessment of community need—level of interest, tie-in with other offered services, differentiation from other locally offered classes
  6. Liability and insurance considerations
  7. Marketing assistance

For additional details, click here.

Question 13: What would your library need to do internally to make such a collaboration possible?

Librarians NOT currently working with an outside entity said they would need to do the following to create a successful collaboration, in order of preference:

  1. Secure administrative approval from governing officials, library board, attorney, insurance provider
  2. Determine space and scheduling needs
  3. Determine and meet needed staffing and funding requirements
  4. Create and conduct marketing

Click here to read additional comments.

Question 14: How soon, ideally, would you like to offer a physical activity program for older adults?

Most librarians said that they would like to start a new program within 3 months. See this graph for further information.

The last question was directed to all respondents.

Question 15: Please record here any additional thoughts you wish to share about physical activity programming for older adults at your library.

Older adults exercising with resistance bands at a libraryThe Golden Warriors Fitness Troupe meets every Tuesday at the Natural Bridge Branch of the St. Louis County Library. Image courtesy of St. Louis County Library.

Responses to this last survey question were numerous, thoughtful, and detailed. They fell in into these broad categories, shown here in order of popularity:

  1. Community Impact—Exercise programming for older adults has an extremely positive impact on older adults and on the community.
  2. Seeking Ideas and Solutions—How can libraries overcome obstacles to offering exercise programs for older adults?
  3. Ties to Community Needs—Does a library have a clear mandate to undertake exercise programs? Do other programs in the community already meet the need?
  4. Adaptability and Safety—How does a library make sure that liability and safety issues are addressed and that delivery of instruction is age appropriate?

See the entire list of responses by clicking here.

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.