Community fitness programs

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
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.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
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.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved physical fitness

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved mental health

Evidence of 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 and may reduce overall risk of falls19. Supervised community-based group exercise programs designed for women who are pregnant can improve women’s aerobic fitness, strength, and birth outcomes20 and may improve physical function among individuals with certain health conditions, such as cancer survivors21.

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 males22. 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 programs23. Among older women, lower impact activities and social support may be preferred24. 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 groups25. Offering classes in parks in neighborhoods with low incomes, with promotion and tailoring of classes, may increase resident awareness and participation26.

One Philadelphia-based study suggests programs using culturally relevant tailoring derived from direct community input can increase program adherence, physical activity, and improve participants’ self-rated health27. 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 programs24.

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.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

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 US 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.

Many faith-based organizations also offer regular fitness programs or exercise classes for their congregations. In the Greater Cincinnati area, for example, many congregations have organized faith-based physical activity and wellness programs36.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some communities offer free virtual fitness classes to do indoors, and have recommendations for safe outdoor activities, as in Richmond, California37. The Centers for Disease Control also has recommendations around COVID-19 safety for gym and fitness program administrators38.

Implementation Resources

EnhanceFitness - Project Enhance. EnhanceFitness.

WeThrive-Toolbox - WeThrive!, Hamilton County Public Health. Toolbox and resources used as part of the WeThrive! initiative.


* 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 2017 - 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 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).

20 Santos-Rocha 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.

21 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.

22 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.

23 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.

24 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.

25 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).

26 Cohen 2017* - Cohen AJ, Richardson CR, Heisler M, et al. Increasing use of a healthy food incentive: A waiting room intervention among low-income patients. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2017;52(2):154-162.

27 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.

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 WeThrive-Faith - WeThrive!, Hamilton County Public Health. Our initiatives: WeThrive! for faith-based organizations.

37 Richmond-Virtual rec - City of Richmond, California, Richmond Community Services Department. Virtual recreation center.

38 CDC-Gyms COVID-19 - Centers for Disease Control (CDC). COVID-19 Employer information for gyms and fitness centers.

Date Last Updated