Community fitness programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated
Community in Action

Fitness programs can be offered in a variety of public settings including community, senior, fitness, and community wellness centers and outdoor settings such as parks. Program offerings vary by location, but often include exercise classes such as aerobic dance classes, Zumba, Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, and spinning/indoor cycling.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved physical fitness

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved mental health

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that fitness and exercise programs offered in community settings increase physical activity levels and improve physical fitness for participating adults and older adults1, 2, 3, 4, particularly when these activities are offered with social support interventions5.

A variety of fitness activities have been shown to be effective in community settings. Aerobic dance classes such as Step, Bodycombat, TAEBO, and Pump, for example, can be as effective as jogging for calories expended6. Zumba and aerobic dance may also decrease body fat mass and improve aerobic capacity4, 7 and may increase flexibility more in comparison with other sports, such as soccer, jogging, or yoga7 though more research is needed. Spinning/indoor cycling classes can be high intensity exercise, so may not be suitable for older adults or sedentary middle-aged adults8, 9, 10. Tai Chi appears to engage older adults in non-sedentary behavior11, improve balance, reduce falls12, and improve cognitive function13. Recent research suggests Tai Chi may also improve cardiorespiratory fitness, but stronger, longer-term studies are needed to confirm effects14. Yoga can improve blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and many cardiovascular risk factors15, 16, 17. In older adults, yoga has been shown to improve health outcomes, physical function, and mental well-being3. Pilates has been shown to improve flexibility, balance, and endurance among participants2. Such group-based exercise activities can also improve mental well-being for older adults18, may reduce social isolation for older women by providing a regularly scheduled space to build community19, and may reduce overall risk of falls20. Supervised community-based group exercise programs designed for women who are pregnant can improve women’s aerobic fitness, strength, and birth outcomes21 and may improve physical function among individuals with certain health conditions, such as cancer survivors22. Pedaling for Parkinson, a disease-specific community fitness class available at many YMCAs across the country, suggests disease-specific physical fitness interventions can be translated from lab-testing into community fitness classes in the real world23.

Organized fitness programs appear to be more attractive to women and older adults than to men and younger adults1, while organized sport activities appear to appeal more to males24. Physical activity regimens that include regular feedback, self-monitoring tools, some form of social support, variety in the activities, and friendly competition appear to encourage adult male participation; however, more studies are needed to determine the most effective ways to engage adult males in community-based fitness programs25. Among older women, lower impact activities and social support may be preferred26. Studies of free physical activity programming in parks suggest that classes tailored to older adults may improve cardiovascular health and strength, with greater gains among Hispanic adults compared to other participating groups27.

Physical activity messages can help motivate individuals to adhere to regular fitness and exercise programs. Messages that are tailored to suit their recipients and framed in terms of gains instead of losses may result in greater physical activity than standard messages28. The Texercise29 program, which uses financial incentives and other reinforcements, appears to be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity among older adults compared to similar programs30.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by intervention design.

Community fitness programs have the potential to decrease disparities in physical activity38, 39 and health38, 40 experienced by people of color and individuals with lower incomes if such programs are designed to be culturally relevant and/or provided in locations that make it easier to access for those populations. Available evidence indicates that programs explicitly designed with community input and culturally relevant tailoring may increase physical activity and improve health in some populations. One Philadelphia-based study of a community-informed, culturally relevant dance and nutrition program at a federally qualified health center (FQHC) suggests programs can increase physical activity and improve participants’ self-rated health. Almost all participants were older Black women, and the social cohesion of the group combined with culturally relevant programming may have also increased program adherence38. Opening fitness centers in neighborhoods whose residents have low incomes and are primarily people of color may increase participation in physical activity, particularly among women41. Another study, based in public parks in high poverty areas of Los Angeles, CA, suggests offering fitness classes in neighborhoods with low incomes, with promotion and tailoring of classes, may increase resident participation39. A cultural dance program for Native Hawaiians including hula training and self-regulation classes provided in community settings may reduce blood pressure40 and be cost-effective42. In a Miami-Dade County-based study of free physical activity programming in parks, Hispanic individuals had greater improvements in cardiovascular health and strength than other participating groups27.

Experts suggest that culturally relevant tailoring efforts should identify participants’ desired settings for activities; reflect the community in promotional materials, use preferred technology, be accessible to those with various levels of literacy; and have staff members who reflect participants recruiting for and leading programs26. However, modest interventions may not be sufficient to overcome the multiple barriers to physical activity faced by people with low incomes39.

Populations with lower incomes and Hispanic, Black, and Native American and Alaska Natives are less likely to engage in leisure time physical activity than those with higher incomes and white and Asian adults43, 44, 45, likely due in part to living in neighborhoods with less access to safe places for physical activity and lack of supports for active lifestyles46. Overall, communities whose residents are primarily people of color and have lower incomes have less access to parks and recreational facilities for physical activity than white and high income neighborhoods47, though quality of parks and the built environment can vary widely at the local level44.

What is the relevant historical background?

During the Industrial Revolution, parks were largely developed to allow wealthy residents access to space that was free from unsanitary conditions and the congestion of crowded cities48. Discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies in the era of Jim Crow and government-sanctioned segregation led to the redlining practices of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), concentrated poverty, and entrenched residential segregation49, including segregation of parks and recreation facilities. Between 1930 and the 1970s, while the government invested in parks in wealthier, white neighborhoods, parks and facilities in minority areas were neglected48. City ordinances outlawed integrated forms of recreation50. Redlining also contributed to the exclusion of people of color from health clubs as they were built in middle class neighborhoods, making them more difficult to access for those excluded from those neighborhoods. As group fitness took off beginning with aerobics in the 1960s, gyms were generally dominated by whites and largely segregated in the same manner as country clubs and golf courses, through membership and location51.

Today, these formerly redlined low income neighborhoods are more likely to be considered fitness or exercise deserts, without access to gyms, safe green spaces, and built environments conducive to physical activity52. Urban areas, which are often primarily populated by individuals of color, usually have the least amount of green space available per person, limiting people’s access to free physical activity. Four of the five cities in the U.S. with the least amount of green space are majority people of color53. While there are low cost fitness centers available today, fitness centers and classes can be expensive, which prevents individuals with lower incomes from joining and participating in them. Costs and lack of time remain barriers to joining group fitness classes for many individuals with low incomes.

Equity Considerations
  • Are there community fitness programs available in your community? Who can access them?
  • Are there fitness classes available in neighborhoods whose residents have low incomes? Are they offered at low or no cost?
  • How can programs be tailored to encourage participation by different communities of color?
  • What barriers exist to participation in local fitness classes? Do some groups face more barriers than others? What can you do to eliminate or reduce the impact of those barriers?
Implementation Examples

Fitness programs or exercise classes are available in all 50 states and can be found at many local YMCAs or JCCs, community centers, parks and recreation facilities, and public or private gyms31, 32, 33. A Texas program, Texercise, offers free materials for community members to use to design and provide fitness programming for older adults and includes reinforcement such as monetary incentives for participating individuals over 45 and individuals with disabilities29. Silver Sneakers offers online classes, gym workouts, instructor-led classes in community settings, and discounted or free gym memberships; the program is designed for older adults and free through some Medicare plans34. StrongPeople programs exist in urban, suburban, and rural settings across the U.S. and are designed for midlife and older adults. Programs include community-based strength training, fitness and nutrition education, and guidance in making community-led changes to the local food and physical activity environments35.

Some fitness programs are disease specific. Pedaling for Parkinson’s, designed to help participants reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, is an indoor stationary bike fitness class available at over 150 YMCAs36, and there are a variety of community fitness programs specifically targeting arthritis37.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

EnhanceFitness - Project Enhance. EnhanceFitness. Seattle, WA.

St Louis-Organize a program - City of St. Louis. Organize a walking group or community fitness program.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Holland 2005 - Holland SK, Greenberg J, Tidwell L, et al. Community-based health coaching, exercise, and health service utilization. Journal of Aging and Health. 2005;17(6):697-716.

2 Cruz-Ferreira 2011 - Cruz-Ferreira A, Fernandes J, Laranjo L, Bernardo LM, Silva A. A systematic review of the effects of pilates method of exercise in healthy people. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2011;92(12):2071-81.

3 Sivaramakrishnan 2019 - Sivaramakrishnan D, Fitzsimons C, Kelly P, et al. The effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls on physical function and health related quality of life in older adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2019;16(33).

4 Vendramin 2016 - Vendramin B, Bergamin M, Gobbo S, et al. Health benefits of Zumba fitness training: A systematic review. PM&R. 2016;8(12):1181-1200.

5 CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

6 Rixon 2006 - Rixon KP, Rehor PR, Bemben MG. Analysis of the assessment of caloric expenditure in four modes of aerobic dance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2006;20(3):593-6.

7 Fong Yan 2018 - Fong Yan A, Cobley S, Chan C, et al. The effectiveness of dance interventions on physical health outcomes compared to other forms of physical activity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine. 2018;48(4):933-951.

8 Lopez-Minarro 2010 - López-Miñarro PA, Muyor Rodríguez JM. Heart rate and overall ratings of perceived exertion during Spinning® cycle indoor session in novice adults. Science & Sports. 2010;25(5):238-44.

9 Caria 2007 - Caria MA, Tangianu F, Concu A, Crisafulli A, Mameli O. Quantification of spinning bike performance during a standard 50-minute class. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2007;25(4):421-9.

10 Battista 2008 - Battista RA, Foster C, Andrew J, et al. Physiologic responses during indoor cycling. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008;22(4):1236-41.

11 Taylor-Piliae 2004 - Taylor-Piliae RE, Froelicher ES. The effectiveness of Tai Chi exercise in improving aerobic capacity: An updated meta-analysis. Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. 2004;19(1):48-57.

12 Leung 2011a - Leung DPK, Chan CKL, Tsang HWH, Tsang WWN, Jones AYM. Tai chi as an intervention to improve balance and reduce falls in older adults: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Alternative Therapies. 2011;17(1):40-48.

13 Wayne 2014 - Wayne P, Walsh J, Taylor-Piliae R, et al. The impact of tai chi on cognitive performance in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2014;62(1):25-39.

14 Zheng 2015 - Zheng G, Li S, Huang M, et al. The effect of tai chi training on cardiorespiratory fitness in healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0117360.

15 Cramer 2014 - Cramer H, Lauche R, Haller H, et al. Effects of yoga on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Cardiology. 2014;173(2):170-183.

16 Cochrane-Hartley 2014 - Hartley L, Dyakova M, Holmes J, et al. Yoga for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease: Review. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014;(5):CD010072.

17 Posadzki 2014 - Posadzki P, Cramer H, Kuzdzal A, Lee MS, Ernst E. Yoga for hypertension: A systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2014;22:511-522.

18 Windle 2010 - Windle G, Hughes D, Linck P, Russell I, Woods B. Is exercise effective in promoting mental well-being in older age? A systematic review. Aging & Mental Health. 2010;14(6):652-69.

19 Barragan 2021 - Barragan C. Social relationships and the importance of community-based fitness programs (CBFP). Journal of Women & Aging. 2021;33(4):428-441.

20 Greenwood-Hickman 2015 - Greenwood-Hickman MA, Rosenberg DE, Phelan EA, Fitzpatrick AL. Participation in older adult physical activity programs and risk for falls requiring medical care, Washington state, 2005-2011. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2015;12(E90).

21 Jorge 2015 - Jorge C, Santos-Rocha R, Bento T. Can group exercise programs improve health outcomes in pregnant women? A systematic review. Current Women’s Health Reviews. 2015;11:75-87.

22 Foley 2015 - Foley MP, Barnes VA, Hasson SM. Effects of a community-based multimodal exercise program on physical function and quality of life in cancer survivors: A pilot study. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. 2015;31(5):303-312.

23 Rosenfeldt 2022 - Rosenfeldt AB, Miller Koop M, Penko AL, Alberts JL. Individuals with parkinson disease are adherent to a high-intensity community-based cycling exercise program. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy. 2022;46(2):73-80.

24 Cochrane-Priest 2008a - Priest N, Armstrong R, Doyle J, Waters E. Interventions implemented through sporting organisations for increasing participation in sport. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2008;(3): CD004812.

25 George 2012 - George ES, Kolt GS, Duncan MJ, et al. A review of the effectiveness of physical activity interventions for adult males. Sports Medicine. 2012;42(4):281-300.

26 Joseph 2017 - Joseph RP, Keller C, Affuso O, Ainsworth BE. Designing culturally relevant physical activity programs for African-American women: A framework for intervention development. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. 2017;4:397-409.

27 Kling 2018 - Kling HE, D’Agostino EM, Booth JV, et al. The effect of a park-based physical activity program on cardiovascular, strength, and mobility outcomes among a sample of racially/ethnically diverse adults aged 55 or older. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2018;15(E166).

28 Latimer 2010 - Latimer AE, Brawley LR, Bassett RL. A systematic review of three approaches for constructing physical activity messages: What messages work and what improvements are needed? International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2010;7:36.

29 TX HHS-Texercise - Texas Health and Human Services (TX HHS). Lead Texercise.

30 Akanni 2017 - Akanni OO, Smith ML, Ory MG. Cost-effectiveness of a community exercise and nutrition program for older adults: Texercise Select. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017;14(545).

31 YMCA-Fitness - Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Health, well-being & fitness.

32 JCC-Fitness - Jewish Community Center Association (JCC), Programs and services at JCCs of North America: Health & fitness.

33 NRPA-Impacting communities - National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Impacting communities: Health and wellness.

34 Silver Sneakers - Silver Sneakers. Check your eligibility.

35 StrongPeople - StrongPeople. Lifting people and communities to better health.

36 PFP - Pedaling for Parkinson’s. Cleveland, Ohio.

37 CDC-PA Arthritis - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Arthritis: Physical activity programs.

38 Foster 2019 - Foster K, Stoeckle J, Silverio A, et al. Attitudes surrounding a community-based fitness intervention at an urban FQHC. Family Medicine. 2019;51(7):598-602.

39 Cohen 2017a - Cohen DA, Han B, Derose KP, et al. Promoting physical activity in high-poverty neighborhood parks: A cluster randomized controlled trial. Social Science and Medicine. 2017;186:130-138.

40 Kaholokula 2021 - Kaholokula JK, Look M, Mabellos T, et al. A cultural dance program improves hypertension control and cardiovascular disease risk in Native Hawaiians: A randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2021;55(10):1006-1018.

41 Choitz 2010 - Choitz P, Johnson MP, Berhane Z, et al. Urban fitness centers: Removing barriers to promote exercise in underserved communities. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. 2010;21(1):221-228.

42 Railey 2022 - Railey AF, Muller C, Noonan C, et al. Cost effectiveness of a cultural physical activity intervention to reduce blood pressure among Native Hawaiians with hypertension. PharmacoEconomics: Open. 2022;6:85-94.

43 Hawes 2019 - Hawes AM, Smith GS, McGinty E, et al. Disentangling race, poverty, and place in disparities in physical activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019;16(7):1193-1205.

44 ACSM AFI-Sallis 2019 - Sallis J. Disparities in the quality of physical activity environments. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) American fitness index. 2019.

45 CDC-API - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adult physical inactivity prevalence maps by race/ethnicity.

46 CDC-Equitable access - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Physical activity: Equitable and inclusive access.

47 ALR-Disparities 2011 - Active Living Research (ALR). Do all children have places to be active? Disparities in access to physical activity environments in racial and ethnic minority and lower-income communities. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2011.

48 NRPA-Equity 2021 - National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Equity in parks and recreation: A historical perspective.

49 Kaplan 2007 - Kaplan J, Valls A. Housing discrimination as a basis for Black reparations. Public Affairs Quarterly. 2007;21(3):255-273.

50 NRPA-Fleming 2021 - Fleming K. Observing from a lens of equity. National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). 2021.

51 Club Industry-Morris 2020 - Morris R, Kufahl P. Addressing racism in the fitness industry requires understanding its roots. Club Industry: Leadership and Management Blog. 2020.

52 VWH-Brown 2022 - Brown S. Do you live in an ‘exercise desert’? Verywell Health (VWH). 2022.

53 MH-Lawrence 2020 - Lawrence A. How race, class, and geography keep some people from great workouts. Men’s Health (MH). 2020.