Engaging Communities in Fitness: A Range of Options



One measure of the richness of any community is its diversity. Variety of geography, age, ethnicity, culture and other traits is at the heart of American life and values.

As diverse as we are, though, and as differently as we choose to live, we have much in common. Deeply rooted in our shared, human physiology, for example, is the need to move. We all benefit from physical activity and exercise. Whether in a schoolyard or a nursing home, condo or campground, in the pink of health or post-chemo, the power of exercise can help us keep healthy or recover. The research is unmistakable, but more compelling for most people is the empirical evidence – how good they feel when they get regular exercise for recreation and as part of daily living.

But, how to get everyone to understand the need to be physically active? How to ensure they have ample opportunities to exercise, and how to motivate them to do it? The answers, fortunately, are as diverse as our communities themselves. I was reminded of this on May 31, when we kicked off the second World Congress on Exercise is Medicine with a community walk in Denver. Everyone – from schoolkids to the Senator to the “Biggest Loser” star – had a great time, and finished the walk just a bit healthier than before.

Just move!

At heart, physical activity is about movement. As two-legged creatures, we are made to walk. The setting may be a mall, trail, sidewalk or office park. No gym membership or special equipment needed; shoes are optional but recommended. The pace may be slower in the retirement home than the high school, but the benefits are just as real. Accumulating daily steps toward the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines is a big contribution toward better health for all. We should share the Guidelines widely and help people find ways to meet them.

But, walking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it isn’t enough for some. Communities with plenty of parks and playgrounds, sports leagues for all and safe, walkable neighborhoods have a leg up and tend to measure better on the ACSM American Fitness Index.

The “Law and Order” Principle

Crime shows tell us the perpetrator needs motive, means and opportunity. Same for exercise: We need to tell our diverse communities why they should be physically active; provide a variety of ways for them to enjoy activity, and help them fit it into daily life. If a personal trainer is too costly, let’s offer free or low-cost classes at community centers. When it’s too cold to jog, open a skating rink. Those who aren’t up to running the mini-marathon can do the 5K family walk.

When the community’s health is a priority, people find ways to encourage healthy lifestyles. The challenge is for each of us – government, businesses, nonprofits and community groups of every stripe – to find what works for us and then make it happen.

What can you do to foster active lifestyles in your community?