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Libraries Now Offering Books and Workouts

Public libraries are now the place to stretch your mind and body.

The next time you visit your local public library, don’t be surprised if you come upon a yoga or Pilates class under way. Libraries, so often stereotyped as quiet places filled with books for reading and research, are increasingly adding the role of community center to their services, with an emphasis on health.

Despite budget cuts and shutdowns in many places (see Library Shutdown in Camden, N.J., this issue), a number of public libraries are hosting fitness boot camps, yoga and tai chi classes, and nutrition education and weight loss programs. Bibliophiles might look down on some of these trends, but with the national obesity rate at 30 percent—the highest in the developed world—cities are trying new ways to help citizens make fitness part of their normal routines. With more than 16,000 public libraries and branches across the country, according to the American Library Association, there are plenty of places where a health movement could get started.

The trend has increased in the past five years or so, says Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, as libraries have worked to keep up with the needs of their communities. “There are some communities where childhood or adult obesity is a real issue,” she says. “So a library will be thoughtful about creating information knowledge packets -- all sorts of information -- that can help individuals and their families address obesity.”

In Oklahoma, obesity is increasing significantly: By 2018, more than 50 percent of residents will be obese. The Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma County is hoping to reverse that current. Last October, it began offering exercise classes when the system adopted a health initiative for staff members, and a number of librarians decided to develop similar health and wellness programs for their patrons.

“The health initiative began because we’re self-insured, and our insurance rates continue to go up every year,” says Kim Terry, director of marketing. “So we thought if we started doing a health program with the staff, that would help us become healthier, and our health insurance premiums would go down.”

Before the health initiative began, some of the libraries already offered a few yoga classes, but interest surged once the program was under way. “They started offering boot camp aerobics; there’s a belly dancing class; Zumba is offered at one of the libraries, and Pilates at another,” says Terry. “A lot of classes came out of that initiative.”

The library system already has seen an increase in attendees since the classes began, and the benefits are numerous, especially for the system’s lower-income patrons. “They don’t have the money to spend going to the gym or some kind of fitness center,” she says. “So for that population to come to the library to exercise since they’re here to check out books and get on the computers is a huge benefit.”

In Sigourney, Iowa, the public library offers free one-hour exercise classes each week throughout the year. The idea came from library patrons, says director Andi Wallerich. “We have a gal who comes and does it for fun.” A consistent group participates in the classes each week, she says, noting that the library plans to add some yoga and stretching classes as well.

At first, it may seem like a strange location for getting a workout, but libraries that offer fitness classes can make a lot of sense. “If you read our statistics as a country, we have real health issues,” Benton says. “So a natural place to provide resources that relate to health is the library.”

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for GOVERNING.com. She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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