The Future

Libraries are filling an affordable fitness void

Librarians are providing yoga and tai chi classes for communities that need them.

The Future

Libraries are filling an affordable fitness void

Librarians are providing yoga and tai chi classes for communities that need them.
The Future

Libraries are filling an affordable fitness void

Librarians are providing yoga and tai chi classes for communities that need them.

When Jessie Yates became the new adult programming librarian at the Taylor County Public Library in Campbellsville, Kentucky, she was surprised by the popularity of its chair yoga class, but she was even more surprised to see older patrons regain their ability to tie their shoes after regular sessions. When she started a walking club, she didn’t expect to watch participants build friendships by talking openly about weight loss. Now a few years into her position in Campbellsville, she’ll offer any fitness class she thinks patrons might like. “I do really care about movement,” said Yates, “and I have a position to create programs where people could come in for free without commitment and move their bodies.”

Just to reiterate: Yates is a librarian, the stereotype for which is a person standing behind a counter with tiny glasses perched on their nose. But as adults increasingly opt for digital offerings and visit libraries for print resources less, more libraries are offering fitness classes as they pivot toward the free services today’s patrons want. While national programs haven’t been officially tallied, the research that exists shows library fitness is no small quirk. In 2014, the American Library Association found that about 23 percent of all public libraries offered a fitness class in the last year, while another survey from the same time learned that 37 percent of the libraries they reached out to offered yoga. More than 60 percent of North Carolina library systems offer fitness classes. There’s a lot left to understand about how and why librarians focusing on physical health and wellness, but the most important thing to know is also the most obvious: The classes are needed.

Library fitness has taken hold in many places across the country because there is nowhere affordable for residents to workout. Low-income communities are four and half times more likely to not have recreational centers than their wealthier counterparts. In rural areas in particular, citizens have a higher chance of obesity — while still also earning less money. Libraries, however, are ubiquitous and free, making them a reasonable substitute for a gym. “[The fitness classes are] definitely filling a gap somewhere in our community, especially in small towns in the South,” said Yates. The librarians keep these programs on a budget by leading classes themselves, asking for volunteers, and only occasionally shelling out for instructors. (Yates said she spends five or 10 cents per session participant each month.)

About 23 percent of all public libraries offered a fitness class in the last year.

These fitness classes’ roots date back to the 1940s. Librarians noticed that nursery rhymes introduced kids to narrative arcs, and the stories’ rhythm made books comfortable and familiar to soon-to-be readers. Later, this learning phase became known as “early literacy,” but at the time, places like the Newark Public Library simply advertised story hour as a place where kids could learn rhythm and dance. In the decades since, research has shown how physical activity boosts academic performance, and library researchers now encourage other librarians to help young patrons get moving for the sake of their language and vocabulary skills.

As libraries become increasingly digital and need less designated space for books and other physical resources, these workout classes have come back to fill the gaps and attract visitors.The Pew Research Center found that from 2012 to 2015, the number of adults who had visited a library in the past year declined from 53 percent down to 44 percent. In the same time period, those who had used a public library website rose from 25 to 31 percent. “As physical books becomes less central to the role of a library, there’s a revisiting of the space an a rethinking of what the space can be used for,” Noah Lenstra, a researcher at The University of North Carolina — Greensboro who has been tracking library workouts, told The Outline. Two Washington state libraries went through this process when they cleared out a couple shelves of unpopular CDs. That left them with open floor space for programming. One location offered a weekly chair tai chi program that became so popular, it outgrew the shelving gap.

Seniors use newly open space in the Bellingham Public Library for a seated workout program.

Seniors use newly open space in the Bellingham Public Library for a seated workout program.

The demand for these library-led workouts spans the country and age groups. In 2015, a Tween Council in Ypsilanti, Michigan, requested parkour lessons, so Jodi Krahnke, the youth services librarian, brought in the University of Michigan parkour team to lead a fun but safe route on the library’s property. The class was a hit, and since then, Krahnke has also provided hip hop, breakdancing, and Brazilian capoeira classes — all at the council’s suggestion. At the Taylor County Public Library, Yates saw her chair yoga class expanded from 10 to 45 weekly participants in three years, and has since added the walking club, Pilates, a running club, and a brief adult ballet class. Between 400 and 600 people come to her programs each month.

Yates and Krahnke’s primary motivation for implementing these classes came from the demand of patrons, and mostly focus on getting people moving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, sees further community benefit in libraries providing wellness services besides physical fitness. The department encourages library programs that teach patrons about illness and healthcare, and give them the skills to uncover valuable health information on their own.

In Pennsylvania, an initiative called PA Forward is taking on this role with enthusiasm. This commission of librarians from around the state aims to make them a go-to spot for navigating America’s healthcare industry. The organization has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Alzheimer's Association of Pennsylvania for educational programming, and built a database so librarians can share their fitness and cooking ideas with one another. Participating librarians even sit down with patrons and help sign them up for Medicaid. “If the Department of Health has 9 to 5 hours, and if you need info and don’t have a computer but want to talk to someone, how do you reach them?” asked executive director Christi Buker. In Pennsylvania, the answer is: Your librarian. (As it happens, the state was also the first with librarians that administer life-saving drugs.)

There are still some locations that still think anything besides books is dangerously avant garde. “Sometimes people are very willing to do movement with young people, but once you start talking about adults, they freeze up or say it’s gone too far,” said Lenstra. Those who aren’t hung up on impropriety, however, are solidifying the library’s role in local fitness and are making larger financial commitments to that programming — as Lenstra found for his soon-to-be-published research, three libraries in North Carolina, Washington, and Oklahoma paid for staff to get yoga or tai chi certifications, and the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, North Carolina is building a new branch with an area designed specifically for storytime yoga and other workouts.

With investments like these, it seems like libraries are growing in their commitment to fitness. But even if this trend doesn’t last, it’s clear the age of books-only libraries is over. “[Patrons] need community and to connect with other humans,” said Yates. “They should get what they need from the library — and sometimes, it’s not a book.”

Update: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the Taylor County programming librarian. She is Jessie, not Jessica.

Leslie Nemo is a science journalist covering culture and the environment.
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