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Visit a modern community center and you might see an electronic schedule board scrolling through the day's many activities and classes. The lobby is bustling with people of all ages; from older adults to young families. It’s all part of the evolving concept of the community centers as hubs of whole-health care.

Community centers are well established as affordable places to access exercise equipment and group classes as well as recreational activities and instruction. Maureen Neumann, senior program manager at the National Parks and Recreation Association (NRPA), said she sees a shifting role for community center programs. “What has traditionally been called the community center (or rec center), we’re now hoping to leverage the work as community wellness hubs.”

Community centers are evolving to fit the changing needs of their local citizens by providing programs and locations that support physical and mental well-being. These are factors that impact overall quality of life, or whole health, and community health — just as public libraries can be a vital source of health information, partnerships, and programs.

Professor Troy Glover, department chair of Leisure and Recreations studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said the modern community center provides a multi-layered, benefit-rich environment. “Just step through the door and take that leap I think is step number one on your path to well-being in many ways,” Glover said.

There are significant wellness benefits linked to even low levels of engagement in community center fitness or arts programs, Glover said. “In many ways, these sorts of activities are just the carrot that you dangle in front of people to draw them in,” he said. “But what we really focus on are the important [aspects] of social connectedness.” 

Community centers support more than physical fitness and leisure activities: Improved mental health status is a prime example of the value of simple attendance. “When we think about social isolation and loneliness, we [often] think about older adults” Glover said. “There are a lot of older adults who just don’t have much of a social network, or access to their friends, upon which to rely. But actually, quite fascinatingly, and particularly during the pandemic, it was younger people who felt the most isolated and the most lonely.”

Whole health is supported by a wide spectrum of information and inspiration. Contact and interaction create opportunity for developing trust that allows for sharing of experiences and resources. According to Glover, opening those interpersonal channels also introduces learning and growth opportunities: “Community centers play a really important role in the sense that they draw people together who often share a similar identity and shared interest, and that can lead to strengthening their social ties which has positive implications for their health.”

Even a small problem can develop into a health concern or have a financial impact and associated stress, but solutions can be shared even during a casual chat after a class or during a group activity. “These sorts of simple things actually are really important in terms of helping us get ahead, and those can have positive implications for our health and well-being,” Glover said. “It’s amazing, in a community center, how many people, as they get to know one another, will pass on information that will help each other out.”

It’s amazing, in a community center, how many people, as they get to know one another, will pass on information that will help each other out.”

Troy Glover

University of Waterloo

Community centers are most effective when they tailor programming to their location, said Maureen Nuemann of NRPA. “We’re seeing these community wellness hubs as unique to the needs of individual communities.” Hubs like the Boston Centers for Youth and Families are good examples of location-based programming that offer enrichment opportunities from adult learning to computer access to theater programs.

According to Neumann, some of the benefits of community programming can be brought home: “We’re seeing, a lot of times, kids taking part in these programs being part of a nutritional literacy curriculum and taking that back to their families, sharing what they’ve learned and really creating an intergenerational approach to well-being.” 

Community centers provide a source of information that’s easy to access, and they are working to make community health resources just as accessible, said Maureen Neumann from NRPA. “We’re seeing ‘Walk with a Doc’ programs where you can meet up with a local healthcare provider, take a walk, ask your questions, and have it really just be an informal, conversational way to approach medical scenarios,” she said.

By becoming a “wellness hub,” the community center is expanding in the space between individuals and care providers. “There’s a growing movement for doctors’ offices to engage in what’s called ‘social prescribing,’” Glover said. “The medical world is coming to appreciate that. A solution to some health problems is for people to connect with others in positive ways, so you’re finding doctors’ offices now saying, ‘Oh, you should sign up for a program at your local community center.’”

The impact of this is a combination of information and interaction, Neumann said: “So you show up in person to get ‘X benefit,’ and you end up getting ‘W, X, Y, Z.’”

Looking ahead, Glover sees community centers expanding their contributions to whole health. “I think that we need to value these places as being incredibly important to advancing people’s health and well-being,” he said.   

Neumann agrees. Looking into the future, she wants to see the community center movement reach even more people: “They’re comfortable going to these centers for connections and resources, and they’re really seen as a vital part of community health,” she said. “They’re respected by the healthcare system, local government, and community members. They can also be really vital parts of the public health system.” 

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