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Guest Column - September 2005

Turning Fitness Into Fun

Fitness

By Ron Derk


In today's world, it's all about convenience. Every time you turn around there's something new to make your life "better"—a new electronic gadget to keep you connected to family and friends (who has time to catch up on the golf course?), ready-made meals that you just pop in the microwave (who has time to prepare healthy dinner from scratch?), and "magical" diet pills that will help you lose weight (who has time for exercise?). Just about everything has a quick fix, except fitness.

This is life in the fast lane, and it's taking a toll on our health. People do understand the link between fitness and health. We know that kids who enjoy sports and exercise tend to stay active into their adult years. We've seen the studies that being overweight can speed the aging process and cause other health problems. Still, it's only human nature to blow off the exercise workout and pick up the phone to order a pizza. People simply avoid things they don't enjoy and gravitate to the things they like. So, as recreation professionals, how do we get people off the couch and get them active? As educators, how do we convince our kids that playing on a playground is more fun than instant messaging their friends? With such limited free time, how do we convince people to use some of that time for exercise?

Fitness and exercise do face a lot of competition. Many of today's youth and young adults are/were raised in either single-parent or dual-income households. As a result, there just isn't as much time for family trips to the park. Kids spend more time at home watching TV, surfing the Web or playing video games. And this habit of inactivity continues as they get older.

So how do we break the cycle and get people excited about fitness? While it's great to consult academic experts and recreation professionals, it's just as important to seek input and ideas from those who will be using them—from the youngest user to the oldest.

Playgrounds are a great place to reinforce that fitness is fun. Give kids enough activities that encourage imaginative play, and they won't even realize that they're exercising. Slides always have been a favorite. But to enjoy the ride down, you must first climb up. Kids look at climbing as a way to reach their end destination: the slide. We look at climbing as sort of a fitness machine, a way to exercise the muscles in their arms and legs.

We know that as kids get older, their interests change. So the challenge is providing enough age-appropriate activities that keep them on the playground. Kids of all ages love to climb. The proof is in the popularity of climbing walls. By adding something so simple to a playground, or maybe even a separate climbing area, you've now provided an activity that older children enjoy. And once again, they're exercising. Not only that, you've provided an area where they can have fun with their friends, creating experiences and memories that will hopefully keep them coming back.

But playgrounds aren't the only way to make fitness fun. Today, more and more teens are into action sports, especially skateboarding, BMX biking and blading. But without a designated place to go to practice their tricks, most teens become discouraged. They often take their tricks to the street —using concrete steps on public buildings—and when they get "kicked out" of there, they pack up and turn to the closest computer for entertainment. By providing skateparks, you can encourage this exercise in an environment that's safe for them—and your neighborhood steps. The misconception for many recreational professionals is that to provide skatepark equipment, you need a lot of space and money. That doesn't have to be the case. You can create small, affordable facilities where these athletes can perfect their sport and take their interest and confidence in sports activity into adulthood.

Fitness doesn't stop at a certain age. It's just as important to remain active after age 50 as it was during the childhood years. And it's just as easy for this older generation to fall into the same trap of inactivity as their younger counterparts. But how do you motivate this group to get out and exercise?

Research has found that many older adults choose walking as the preferred form of exercise. Adding a walking trail in your community is one way to entice this group to move away from the television set and into the outdoors. It's also key to properly maintain existing paths as well as renovate trails or add helpful amenities. By enhancing activities that people already enjoy, and by providing activities that can be done either alone or in a group, you're encouraging people to get fit.

But in order for people to stay fit and active throughout life, you really have to begin at an early age. When healthy habits—whether it's exercise or a sensible diet—start young, there's a better chance they'll continue as we get older. It becomes a natural part of our lives, not something we have to make an effort to do.

Marketing people like to name each generation—Baby Boomers, Generations X and Y. I propose we band together and create a new "generation," one that embraces all ages, and call it Generation F—for Generation Fun. Because if we start today to make recreation fun and cool and a more desirable way to spend free time, then fitness stands a chance for this generation and future ones.

Ron Derk is director of sales and marketing for Playworld Systems, Inc. He can be reached at RonD@playworldsystems.com.

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