Build Community With Inclusive Outdoor Fitness
By Allison Abel
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be a challenge for many of us. There are many barriers to exercise that conspire to keep us sedentary. But for some groups, the challenges are even greater. Consider demographics such as seniors and those with disabilities. Even many indoor gyms don't have many activities or amenities for at-risk groups such as these. It's no surprise, then, that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 58 percent higher than for those without. For seniors, the tendency to develop mobility challenges hampers their ability to stay active and puts them at greater risk for obesity as well.
To address these challenges and help to boost health outcomes in local communities, recreation professionals are, in many cases, turning to outdoor gyms and fitness trails.
As one of the most inclusive amenities for public spaces, outdoor fitness equipment has greatly evolved over the past decade. These fresh-air gyms now provide a vast range of activities for users of nearly every age and fitness level. The beauty of outdoor fitness equipment lies in the fact that each gym can be customized to the needs of the users in a way that allows everyone to exercise together—creating inclusive, multigenerational exercise centers. In some cases, users in wheelchairs can exercise not only in the same area, but even on the same actual unit as the able-bodied.
But how to best utilize this amenity to promote inclusion and provide the greatest benefit to the community?
The first consideration will be the location: For best results, the outdoor gym must be located in a visible, high-traffic area. Not only does a prominent location increase usage, but it also decreases the chances of vandalism. Areas next to parking lots and trailheads are prime locations for outdoor gyms. Not only will these locations create high awareness levels, but they will also be easily accessible, even by those with mobility challenges. A park visitor who doesn't have the strength or stamina to traverse a long trail will still be able to enjoy a good workout. Fitness areas may also be placed adjacent to playgrounds for parents to use while watching their children.
The unit selection in an outdoor gym should be tailored to the intended users. Typically there will be several wheelchair-accessible units included. If the gym is near a rehab center or hospital, there will be an emphasis on more accessible units. If the local area has a high senior population, the gym should feature some low-impact units and exercises to help them maintain agility. For communities with lots of younger users, functional fitness units that emulate this popular indoor gym experience will see good use. Ultimately, a mix of units catering to a wide variety of ages and ability levels will maximize the inclusive aspect of the gym.
When considering surfacing under the fitness equipment, consider what groups may be using what areas. Mulch is excellent under fitness rigs; however, while it is technically accessible, it is not as easy for users in wheelchairs to navigate over. Some project planners have opted to use different types of surfacing in the various parts of the fitness area depending on the intended users. Mulch, rubber tiles, artificial turf or poured-in-place rubber are recommended under large fitness rigs that include climbing elements. For areas of the gym containing wheelchair-accessible equipment and units where users' feet are on or near the ground, decomposed granite or even concrete is often used.
To maintain the social aspect of the gym as much as possible, a large area of fitness equipment with all units clustered together is best. Should fitness equipment be installed along a trail, small clusters are preferred to isolated units. A user jogging or walking down the trail will often bypass a unit in use by another person, and will often not return to use that unit later. However, when a trail features pods with multiple units in each, the chances of trail users utilizing each piece of equipment increases.
An outdoor gym designed with inclusion in mind has several key benefits. First, because the gyms have such a wide appeal, they allow family members of multiple generations to exercise together. At outdoor fitness areas across the country, it's a common sight for a young teenage athlete to be counting reps on a pull-up bar, while just a few feet away a grandmother enjoys a stretching unit. With the tight schedules of the modern family, spending quality time together while being able to exercise—each individual enjoying a challenge suitable to their abilities—is a rarely-encountered benefit.
In addition, the inclusive outdoor gym provides avenues for socialization among those at high risk of isolation and related mental health challenges. Those with disabilities may participate in the community to a degree, but they often interact substantially with other individuals having similar challenges. However, a well-designed outdoor gym has the ability to bring everyone together, allowing individuals to cross paths with others they may not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. As a result, social capital increases and communities are strengthened.
Across the United States and beyond, outdoor fitness equipment is helping to promote wellness and fight obesity, one community at a time.
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