Geri-Fit® at the Library:
Studying Small and Rural Public Libraries as Venues for Active Living Among Older Adults

By Noah Lenstra & Fran Fisher

Released February 12, 2020

RECOMMENDED CITATION: Lenstra, N. & Fisher, F. (2020) Geri-Fit® at the Library: Studying Small and Rural Public Libraries as Venues for Active Living Among Older Adults. Greensboro: Let’s Move in Libraries.

June 2020 Update. Download presentation on project from 2020 Age + Action Conference sponsored by National Council on Aging.

Introduction: How Geri-Fit® Came to the Library

Public libraries increasingly join faith-based institutions as community-based venues for active living. According to public health scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, 66% of Pennsylvania libraries support patrons’ interest in exercise. Public libraries are among the most trusted institutions in U.S. society and gerontologists recognize them as ideal locations for “peer-based strategies to support physical activity for older adults.”

The Geri-Fit® at the Library Study represents the first-ever nationwide study of a physical activity intervention in public libraries. Past case studies have examined the effects of training public librarians in Southwestern Ontario to lead a Move 2 Learn program, circulating pedometers in public libraries, and including rural libraries in the development of physical activity promotion coalitions. In addition, past studies have shown that public libraries are increasingly interested in working with partners to offer exercise opportunities for older adults, and that in fact about one quarter of U.S. public libraries now offer fitness classes.

The Geri-Fit® at the Library Study adds to this evidence base by showing that public libraries, in small and rural communities in particular, have incredible value to physical activity and health promotion efforts, particularly among older adults. 535 older adults took part in a 12-week Geri-Fit® video-led group strength training program consisting of 24 classes conducted twice a week from January-April 2019. They then filled out a survey which asked questions regarding the impacts of the program. 49 small and rural public libraries participated in this study. Approximately half of the participating libraries completed a Geri-Fit® coach training program and continue to offer the program at their libraries. Other libraries have since joined them in offering free Geri-Fit® at the Library programs.

“We are still going with classes. Our numbers have grown. I found our original members are great at helping new members. The best advertisement is word of mouth.” – Michell Klinker-Feld, Director, Bondurant, Iowa, Community Library

Geri-Fit® at the Library Supports Healthy Aging Across Mind and Body

Nationwide study of small and rural communities shows older adults consistently come to free strength training classes offered in public libraries.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg describes public libraries as social infrastructure, where people of all ages can come together and build community. One example he uses to illustrate this phenomenon is the Library Lanes Bowling League offered at the Brooklyn Public Library, where older adults gather together to bowl at the library using Xbox Connect. The idea of public libraries as spaces where people access each other is now an established part of the profession.

“It was a social time as well as physical exercise time. We all need each other as well as physical time for our bodies!” – Participant from Union, IA

The Geri-Fit® at the Library study also revealed that older adults gathering together at the library to exercise had health benefits that transcend the individual. A series of questions about participants’ mood and well-being revealed:

  • 93% of participants affirmed that Geri-Fit® at the Library helped lift their spirits or put them in a better mood.
  • 77% of participants affirmed that their generalized well-being was better after the program.
  • 51% of participants stated that since they started Geri-Fit® their overall health had gotten better.

These findings confirm that harnessing the power of public libraries for health can productively focus on group dynamics, building healthy aging across mind and body at the community level.

Overall Benefits: Strength, Well-Being, More Active and Balanced

Unsurprisingly, given that the Geri-Fit® program focuses on strength training, the most frequently reported positive impact of the program was on overall strength. Fully 78% of the 535 participants reported that their “overall strength” had gotten better since they started Geri-Fit.

In addition to improved strength, participants reported many other facets of their health getting better since they started Geri-Fit® at the library:

  • 77% reported their generalized well-being had gotten better.
  • 63% reported their overall physical activity levels had gotten better.
  • 61% reported their balance had gotten better.

Furthermore, a majority of participants reported improvements to their ability to stand up without assistance, to their overall energy levels, and to their overall health. Less than 50% reported benefits to their ability to walk up and down stairs and to walk without assistance, but it is important to note that it is possible that many participants could already do these tasks with ease before beginning the program, and thus there may have been limited room for improvement.

“I feel better, have more energy, and stay motivated to exercise.” – Participant from Owensboro, KY

Benefits of Geri-Fit® in the Participants’ Own Words

The survey ended with the question: “We’d like to know of any other positive results you have seen since taking Geri-Fit®.” Many (n=327) used this space to vividly convey in their own words the myriad benefits of this program.

“Geri-Fit® is an excellent program for health and wellbeing. I am encouraged that I can do better and stop the downward spiral I’ve been in. Thanks to everyone who made this possible.” – Participant from Holbrook, AZ

These open-ended responses were systematically coded, and confirmed and added texture to the findings from the rest of the survey. In open-ended responses:

  • 28% said the social activity was a key benefit of the program.
  • 23% reported improved strength.
  • 16% reported improved mobility.
  • 12% reported improved attitude or generalized well-being.
  • 11% reported improved balance and coordination.

These findings confirm that the benefits of Geri-Fit® at the Library transcend the bodies of the individuals. This program benefited minds, and contributed to a culture of healthy, active aging in the small and rural communities where the program took place.

Sustainability of Active Living Library Programming for Older Adults

A key challenge which active living interventions confront is sustainability: people may start a program but then drop out. The Geri-Fit® at the Library program proved to be very sustainable.

Key factors that supported this sustainability include:

  • Community building among participants.
  • The public library as a safe and trusted space.
  • The quality of the GeriFit® DVDs, which encouraged rather than discouraged participants.

“The group is so light-hearted. When the DVD says ‘Put your exercise band around the foot of your choice,’ One lady said to her neighbor, ‘I’ll put it around your foot.’” – Meg Polly, Director, Whiting Public Library

Despite some extremely bad weather – January and February 2019 had some of the coldest weather on record in parts of the Midwestern United States –- a majority of participants attended nearly all of the classes:

  • 51% attended 19-24 classes between January-April 2019.
  • 26% attended 13-18 classes.
  • 12% attended 7-12 classes.
  • 5% attended 1-6 classes.

In addition to strong attendance, a majority of participants also reported making up any missed classes at home, using handouts provided at the beginning of the program. 55% of those that did not attend all 24 classes reported that they did make up any classes missed, while 45% reported that they did not.

A final sign of the sustainability of the program comes from the response to the question “Would you recommend the Geri-Fit® program to your family and friends?” Fully, 97% of participants said that they would. Overall, a vast majority (85%) also reported planning on continuing with Geri-Fit® at the Library, if the libraries chose to continue offering the classes. Among the very few (n=37) who said they would not continue with the program, reasons offered included: too busy or a scheduling conflict (13), and seasonal (they prefer to be outside when it is warm) (12).

The results of this study demonstrate that public libraries have great potential as partners in efforts to increase healthy, active living among Americans. Additional research on active living interventions and partnerships involving public libraries is needed. America has over 16,000 public libraries, representing a vast infrastructure that needs to be better included in active living policy and practice.

Portrait of Geri-Fit® Program Survey Participants

Using U.S. Census data, the communities that participated were organized into four categories: Very Small (VS) – serves a population of less than 1,000 residents, Small (S) – serves a population between 1,000 and 5,000 residents, Medium (M) – serves a population between 5,000 and 10,000 residents, and Large (L) – serves a population of greater than 10,000 residents.

Most (64%) study participants were from communities with fewer than 5,000 residents. 127 participants were from very small communities, with less than 1,000 residents. 214 participants were from small communities, 86 participants were from medium sized communities (populations between 5,000 and 10,000), and 108 participants were from large communities.

92% of the public libraries that participated in this study serve communities with populations under 13,000.

Most participants identified as female (87%). 12% identified as male.

Most (73%) participants were between the ages of 65-80. Six individuals over the age of 90 completed the program, and all six of these individuals participated in this program at public libraries that served very small communities.

Due to a number of factors – including some very enthusiastic public librarians – the majority of the participants came from the U.S. state of Iowa. Most very small community participants came from Iowa. Nevertheless, participants represent all of the regions of the United States, with libraries participating in Wyoming, Arizona, Texas, New England, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc. Public libraries from 17 states participated in this study.

Learn More

About Geri-Fit Company

The Geri-Fit® Company has been offering senior fitness programming throughout the United States for over 25 years. It was one of the very first exercise programs for older adults that concentrated on building strength through the use of dumbbell weights. It has been the subject of studies performed by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, MetroHealth General Hospital, the University of Texas Arlington, and others.

In 2013, the Geri-Fit® program underwent a review process conducted by the Administration for Community Living and the Administration on Aging and it was determined that the program met the highest criteria (tier level III) as an evidence-based health promotion / disease prevention program making it eligible for Title IIID Older Americans’ Act federal funding. In 2018, the Geri-Fit program also met the criteria as an ongoing physical activity support program for chronic disease self-management.

Today, the Geri-Fit® program is offered at nearly 275 locations with plans to expand the program to other countries over the next decade. The company also provides accredited continued education training programs for lay leaders and family caregivers as well as a retail line of DVDs and other older adult products.

More information on the Geri-Fit website:

About Let’s Move in Libraries

Let’s Move in Libraries was founded in 2016. It is directed by Dr. Noah Lenstra, MLS, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This international initiative to support healthy living through public libraries has over 5,000 public librarians and public library supporters engaged through social media, the project website, and its monthly newsletter. Research from this initiative has also been published and presented in Library Quarterly, Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, Public Library Quarterly, the Journal of Library Administration, and the Active Living Conference, among other venues.

In addition to the Geri-Fit study participant surveys, Geri-Fit at the Library sites also participated in Public Performance and Coach Training surveys.