Recreation Centers: Working Beyond Walls to Make a Difference

With a nearly 40 percent obesity rate and only 23 percent of Americans getting enough exercise, health and wellbeing are big focus areas for many people. And local fitness, recreation and aquatic centers, which have long been pillars of their communities, are playing a more crucial role than ever before. Not only do they offer an opportunity for citizens to become more active, but recreation centers also engender a sense of belonging and community that so many people today are seeking.


Why is this sense of community and belonging so important? Research shows that almost half of Americans feel lonely, and that loneliness may rival obesity as a health threat. Recreation centers can help fill this void, providing a space that is about more than individual goals—benefiting the collective group of people they serve and in turn, the communities in which they operate.

Within their walls, rec centers serve a vital function for the community: To help people lead richer, fuller lives by promoting a healthier lifestyle. They do this by offering fitness and aquatic classes, access to recreation facilities, health, wellness and nutrition coaching, plus a variety of other programming options designed to help community members lead their best lives.

While it's not surprising to learn that operating a local fitness or recreation center requires a lot of heavy lifting, you may not realize how much staff are doing to support their local communities. Their commitment to creative approaches to improving the lives of the communities they serve happens both inside and outside the walls of the center.

And the ways in which these local recreation centers take action are varied, too. At HealthFitness, we have partnered with a number of local rec centers to find ways to serve the community in unique and unexpected ways. From community events and education to volunteer opportunities, the opportunities for community involvement are virtually endless.

Volunteering in the Community

Our staff at fitness and recreation centers understands the importance of volunteering in the community and giving back. Did you know that approximately 63 million Americans—25 percent of the adult population—volunteer their time, talents and energy to making a difference in their local communities? Running, walking or biking for charity is a great way to be active while helping raise awareness for local rec centers. In just one hour, a 5K race provides the opportunity to raise money for a good cause and get healthy at the same time!

Here's one example: Our team at the health and fitness center at a leading regional health care system in Wisconsin hosted an indoor triathlon to support the community's local multiple sclerosis (MS) organization, Just Keep Moving. More than 45 participants swam 15 minutes, biked 20 minutes and ran 20 minutes as part of the event. And, even if folks didn't participate in the race, there were additional opportunities to volunteer and cheer on those running, biking and swimming in the race!

Fighting a Community and State Epidemic

With the seventh-highest obesity rate in the country, our team at a leading health and wellness center in southeast Texas made it their mission to connect with local schools to offer and promote opportunities for healthy living. Our team now sponsors a new after-school program that includes sports-specific movement techniques, recreational games, swimming, cardiovascular and body-weight conditioning to help give area youth more opportunities to lead healthier lives. In addition to providing opportunities for regular physical fitness, it's a great place for kids to get their homework done, too.

Spreading the Word

At the Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center in Bethel, Alaska, our team regularly works with local businesses to develop membership opportunities for their employees. And, with radio being such an effective way to reach members of the community in this remote Alaskan town, the center records Public Service Announcements (PSAs) with a local station to promote community activities on a regular basis.

Meeting Community Needs

The Cornerstone Aquatics Center in West Hartford, Conn., attracts a mix of grade-school children, high school kids and older adults by opening up its two different pools (which have two distinctly different temperatures) to host competitive swim meets, swimming lessons and other aquatic programming for older adults. With a team of 60 professionals, the Aquatics Center is able to serve thousands of families well beyond the walls of the center. Above and beyond supporting those looking to get in the water, they also provide a hugely valuable community service: certifying more than 100 lifeguards who manage and watch over the pools year-round (and providing jobs to many kids and adults in the area)!

Supporting Important Community Events


During the Kuskokwim 300, the world's premier mid-distance dog sled race and one of the toughest in the state of Alaska, our team at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Fitness Center hosted several "mushers," including one Iditarod champion.

It represented an organic way for the Fitness Center to raise its profile within the community, while supporting an activity that is incredibly important to the city and state. Mushers were given full access to the Fitness Center. And they sure appreciated the availability of a hot shower, pool and hot tub after 300 miles outside in sub-zero temperatures.

Local recreation centers require the support and engagement of the community to create the sense of belonging members are seeking. But to truly have a meaningful impact, they are taking their efforts outside their own walls to showcase the communities they call home. From supporting community events to meeting unique community needs and creating opportunities for community members to get involved, they are consistently finding interesting and dynamic ways to enrich lives. And, I see that as a trend that's going to accelerate in the years ahead as healthy living and wellbeing become an even stronger focus for communities.



Tim Mertz is a senior director, Collegiate & Community Recreation at HealthFitness.