Taking It OUTSIDE!
Outdoor Fitness Areas to Get Everyone Moving
By Rick Dandes
Fitness trails that combine outdoor workout equipment with walking or jogging are nothing new. But over the past few years, park designers and manufacturers have worked together to develop innovative ways to optimize the experience of outdoor exercise within a park setting for all demographics: from aging baby boomers to busy gen Xers, active millennials and gen-Z—also known as post millennials.
How do you create an environment that motivates people to exercise at a time when more and more folks lead sedentary lives, spending their days seated in front of a computer monitor? "That is the key," said Sam Mendelsohn, CEO of a leading provider of outdoor fitness equipment, based in Orange County, Calif. "Regardless of the budget, regardless of the available space, within the given parameters, what can you do to drive people of all ages and all abilities so that they'll spend more time exercising in a park?" he asks.
Some of the latest trends that have developed in setting up your outdoor fitness equipment address that question.
"I'm seeing two trends now," said Bruce Carson, co-director of sales, at a Grover Beach, Calif., equipment manufacturer. "The two are either exercise trails or fitness zones.
"When people do trails," Carson added, "they stagger equipment along the way, usually a quarter of a mile to several miles long. The shorter trails, in my opinion, are better because people have the opportunity to get outside. They go to their park, get their cardiovascular exercise in their warmup, when they're walking or running from station to station. We see people place equipment for users to stop and do strength training or flexibility and stretching exercises."
It's a win-win situation, Carson said. Municipalities don't have to buy expensive cardiovascular equipment like ellipticals or rowing machines. Users get a free workout in beautiful outdoor settings.
The other trend, which is equally popular, is creating an outdoor gym setting or fitness zones using several pieces of equipment, including cardiovascular equipment. This "pod" becomes an area where people can congregate, just like going to an indoor gym, but in an outdoor setting.
Mendelsohn has taken the idea of a fitness zone and put his own unique twist to the concept. "Even when you build a fitness trail," he said, "my philosophy is to create clusters of multiple units that offer multiple events in one footprint that allow people of all abilities to spend more time exercising. That is the bottom line. If you have an environment that offers low impact type of exercise and then you offer something more intermediate and something more challenging, you'll find people of all ages and all abilities exercising. And we recommend that the fitness pods will have at least three pieces of equipment, where at least two people can exercise independently or with each other, offering a great deal for the community in that particular spot."
Mendelsohn suggested creating a large pad close to a parking lot. "Closer to the trail head, closer to the community center," he said. "Locate the cluster somewhere that is highly visible and easy to access for people of all abilities, especially people in wheelchairs. If you put it next to a parking lot," he said, "a wheelchair-bound user can just park the car and go in and exercise. Same thing with an able-bodied person. You just come in and park the car and go use it."
The idea of spreading units along the trail to motivate people to use when they're running doesn't work, in Mendelsohn's opinion. "If you are a runner, you are not going to stop every 400 feet to exercise. You just keep on running. If you are a person that needs motivation to exercise because you are overweight, putting stations 400 feet away from each other might be a challenge. You need to keep it simple. Keep it closer to the parking lot, so you can park your car and go exercise."
As you consider all the elements, Mendelsohn advised, keep in mind that you need to offer something for people who are extremely fit and like to run on the trail. They might use the equipment either at the beginning, before they start running to warm up and stretch, or at the end.
Programming Trends Can Motivate Users
Another way to motivate people to exercise could lie in programming ideas, suggested Scott Roschi, creative director of a Delano, Minn.-based equipment manufacturer. Yes, he said, "Traditional outdoor fitness environments—stations positioned near trails or clustered near playgrounds—continue to be a popular feature for many communities. However, with the popularity of the TV show 'American Ninja Warrior,' we have seen an increased interest in obstacle course-style fitness environments. The great thing about these types of designs is that they are truly multigenerational—welcoming tweens to adults—and encourage the whole community to stay active in a fun way."
Outdoor fitness has always been a common form of exercise but every day you hear something new and upcoming to make your outdoor fitness experience even better.
Outdoor fitness has always been a common form of exercise, added Mimi Marler, marketing manager for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based equipment manufacturer, "but every day you hear something new and upcoming to make your outdoor fitness experience even better. A common trend we are seeing a lot of is fitness 'boot camps.' These are great ways to have a core group of people to keep you motivated and pushing yourselves. Recently we have noticed more and more of these taking place in outdoor fitness parks, as trainers come up with new and exciting ways to use the equipment for a new and fresh experience at each class."
Other trends Marler has seen popping up are challenge courses and timed pieces. "Everything is more fun when you throw in a little friendly competition," she said.
Setting Up the Equipment
There are many things to consider when setting up equipment, whether along a traditional path-style fitness course or in cluster zones that mimic a small gym. First is the landscape, said Brent Dunseith, vice president, sales, of a furnishings and outdoor equipment manufacturer, based in Princeton, Ontario, Canada. "Whether it is going to be on a soft surface or a hard surface is key. Our equipment, for example, is made so that it can be directly buried into a soft surface or it can be surface-mounted onto a hard surface, like a concrete pad."
Another thing to consider when setting up equipment, Dunseith said, "is the makeup of the user group." Understand that demographics are always going to change with time. Still, try to build for who your users will be now. Is it young people looking for lots of exercise because that is the community this trail or station might be in? Or is it more of a senior population? They might want more mobility type equipment, like an exercise bike with very low resistance. A user might get on an exercise bike and keep his or her knees loose, but you are not really working your muscle group, whereas in an area with a younger population, groups might want something more rigorous. Machines with adjustable resistance will help your exercise area appeal to more age groups.
When Carson works with people, "and I ask the initial questions about what they are looking to do, one of the main questions is, who are you catering to?" he said. Who is going to use the equipment? That is a very important question. Because there is such a large variety of outdoor equipment available, some of which is not appropriate for children.
Carson said he's been in the industry for almost 13 years, and until 2015, there were no real standards for outdoor fitness equipment and accessories. "
"The outdoor fitness craze started about 10 years ago," he said. "And when it began we found that a lot of people were asking for regulations. There were no regulations. So, what we did until 2015 is we looked at the playground industry and copied their regulations. Because that was the closest thing to outdoor equipment that we had to look at."
In 2015, the first standard for outdoor equipment was introduced by ASTM, the Standard Specification for Unsupervised Public Use Outdoor Fitness Equipment. (See sidebar for more information on this new standard.)
That standard refers to equipment for people over the age of 13 in unsupervised situations, Carson said. "It tells us what equipment is safe for children, talks about fall heights, and different age groups.
"As for demographics, if you tell me you want to put outdoor equipment for a school population, we're going to suggest equipment that is appropriate for that group of users. And that would be equipment with no moveable parts, no complicated instruction, low to the ground, no pinch points. It would be equipment that would allow children to safely get exercise and not hurt themselves or hurt other people by not being able to read the instructional details that come with the equipment."
It is important to read up on the AS™ standards prior to beginning your outdoor fitness project, Marler added, agreeing with Carson. Spacing requirements and surfacing recommendations are all part of these standards. When selecting your outdoor fitness products, partner with a company that is up to date on these standards, as well as other best practices, gleaned through plenty of experience with a range of clients.
Surface issues go hand-in-hand with who will be using the equipment. What we are seeing, Dunseith said, is that the best place for outdoor equipment is on an existing concrete pad. Or, you can pour a new concrete pad for your equipment.
"We see people repurposing tennis courts, basketball courts, and then installing equipment right on top of that," he said. "Consider equipment that is intended to be surface-mounted because when you look at that AS™ regulation they talk about fall heights.
"In outdoor exercise equipment consider products that are very low to the ground. Basically it would be like sitting in a standard chair and so rubber or soft surfaces are not really important underneath those products where there is really no fall height."
Accessible products are important to incorporate somewhere in a fitness area, Marler said. "There are so many product options out there that are compatible with mobility devices. However, when designing a park that is truly accessible to users of all abilities there are several key things to keep in mind, other than product selection. These include surfacing, routes of travel and means of parking, all of which are equally important to providing accessibility to users."
There are two ways to look at accessibility, Dunseith explained further. "We look at it as wheelchair accessibility, and if we install equipment in a fashion that someone in a wheelchair or someone that needs some kind of assistance can physically get to without any tripping hazards, if they can roll up to it or get to it and use it, then that piece of equipment is considered accessible."
The other way of looking at accessibility is usability by wheelchair users. Look to install equipment specifically designed for wheelchair users.
If you want to turn your outdoor fitness gym into a fitness destination, Marler said, it only makes sense to offer several key amenities, creating the perfect comfortable space for your users. These include:
- Shade: This is very important, especially through the hot summer months and for those locations that receive a lot of rain. By providing shade at your park you are encouraging the users not to pause their daily routine due to a light rain or a hot sunny day.
- Site Furnishings: It is important to have some seating available for your users, whether they are just needing a quick break after a long workout or if they just need to change out their shoes before beginning. Benches and tables can be very useful for park-goers. In addition to seating, bike parking and water fountains are also a plus.
- Signage: It is important to have signage for both the equipment and the park. You should display signage for each piece of fitness equipment that displays the muscles being worked and also a step-by-step process on how to properly use the equipment. Another option is signage for the park displaying rules and hours of operation.
Because of the way people are building fitness areas along cycling paths, ideally, you should have some bike racks, Mendelsohn suggested. Bicycles are expensive and you don't want people to have to just lay them on the ground. You should have something to set your bike in whether it's locked or not. At least a bike stand while the person stops to do some exercises.
Recycling opportunities are also important. People have water bottles they need to dispose of, or get rid of garbage so have trash receptacles strategically placed where they can easily be seen and accessed.
An overlooked amenity might focus on parents who bring their kids to a park, suggested Mendelsohn. Placing a bench next to an exercise unit, he said, requires a very small footprint. It can be low to the ground and be the safest apparatus out there. Parents and caregivers can then easily have some sort of physical activity while their kids play at the playground or wait nearby.
Lighting is another consideration. Do you want people to be able to use the equipment after dusk, or before sunrise?
Maintenance and Best Practices
For the most part outdoor fitness is very low maintenance, Marler said, "… although regular inspections are necessary to make sure the equipment is in good working order."
As a rule of thumb, she noted, regularly wipe down the equipment and perform necessary inspections to the equipment as well as the surfacing to ensure an inviting experience for the users and a reduced risk of trip and pinch hazards. Depending on where the park is located, this type of inspection may need to be performed more regularly, so be sure to check with your provider to make sure you are aware of any necessary maintenance details to keep your park looking good as new.
"Communities should establish a maintenance program that addresses the details of the fitness equipment and the surrounding environment," Roschi added, "and then schedule regular inspections to keep the equipment functioning and ensure safety."
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