Fresh Air & Exercise

For Public Health, Prescribe Outdoor Fitness Areas


A few years ago Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, decided to combine the benefits of fresh air with physical therapy for senior citizens on the mend. For the equipment needed to strengthen muscles and improve balance and flexibility, the hospital turned to outdoor fitness equipment, working with a provider to design a set of machines usable by all abilities and for the strengthening needs of the patients.

It's an example of one of the benefits of using equipment outdoors for fitness, and more and more communities are interested in adding some sort of exercise-focused hardware to their parks or campus offerings. The desire to get outside during the pandemic sheltering has emphasized the importance of having outdoor options in the community.

"It's very seldom we have a conversation with any kind of outdoor recreation customer that they don't ask about outdoor fitness, and sometimes it's the only conversation they want to have," said Kent Callison, marketing director for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness and play equipment based in Fort Payne, Ala. "They know that when you get people moving, you lower the risk of heart attack and stroke and other problems related to obesity, but also you create an opportunity to develop social capital—people coming together, socializing with others they might not otherwise meet and finding common ground when they're exercising together."

The need for and benefits of exercise are well known, but the challenges to exercise facilities are less so. A lot of people cannot afford a gym membership, or have social anxiety, or don't own transportation to get to a health club. There are not enough parks in the United States, but ideally the ones that exist are located within walking distance of many. Outdoor fitness equipment in parks provides ways for age groups older than children to add activity to their lives.


"Your built environment, the places you live in, really play a significant role in your health outcome," said Nette Compton, associate vice president for strategic plan implementation for the Trust for Public Land, which has installed more than 100 outdoor Fitness Zones in communities of need across the country. "You can look at health disparity by ZIP code, and when you think about the health community, especially the last few years has really zeroed in on the fact that your health isn't coming from your doctor's office, it's coming out of where you live and the resources you have access to.

"We're part of a public health landscape and can play a significant role in helping to build healthier communities."

The ROI seems good as well, said Allison Abel, marketing director for an Orange County, Calif.-based provider of outdoor fitness equipment. "On the planning side, cities noticed that—as one individual expressed it—'the cost per energy unit burned is by far the cheapest of any intervention you make for health and fitness in a park,'" Abel said.

She cited a recent study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that revealed that a properly planned and executed outdoor gym does result in greater energy expenditure in public spaces.

"The results will vary from project to project, but we have seen from this and other studies—as well as much anecdotal evidence—that outdoor gyms are a viable way to encourage local community members to pursue healthier lifestyles," she said.

Benefits of outdoor fitness areas and equipment include:

>> They're free to users, providing fitness options in underserved communities.

>> People who exercise outdoors are more likely to repeat the behavior and for longer periods than people who exercise indoors, according to research by Leisure-net Solutions.

>> They are social outlets that build community capital.

>> They can be designed for people of all abilities and fitness levels.

>> They provide exposure to fresh air, nature and sunlight, which increases levels of vitamin D.

>> They offer opportunities for revenue generation through program agreements with certified personal trainers.

>> They can be catalysts to encourage non-exercising adults to be more active.

>> They may boost interest in related community services, such as nutrition education and health screenings.

>> They promote pride of place among neighborhoods.

>> They might qualify for increased grant funding related to obesity prevention and reduction.


When located within sight lines of a playground, they promote active behavior in adult family members, increase time spent at the playground and help promote the importance of lifelong fitness to children.

For people of a certain age, outdoor exercise equipment was simple and involved wood. A pull-up station, parallel bars for pushups and dips, a bench of some sort for sit-ups, a set of bars to be used however one saw fit. In areas of a certain dry and sunny climate, full-fledged weightlifting gyms were outdoors, most famously in Venice Beach, Calif.

But as companies began to compete through researching and developing unique products, that fitness equipment evolved to be made of materials that could handle all climates and delivered performance for people of all abilities wanting to improve their muscles, flexibility, core, balance and aerobic fitness.

"The idea is to create something that's very familiar-looking so everyone immediately feels comfortable using it, but making it really durable to withstand the elements," said Callison.

Today's equipment has instructional signage for users who aren't familiar with it, and even scannable QR codes that link to videos. They accommodate all ages and abilities; some equipment's adjustable options and heights are designed so that folks in wheelchairs can use the same equipment as those who aren't.

A more recent addition to outdoor fitness options is the obstacle course fitness area. Inspired by the popularity of shows like American Ninja and the urban gymnastics fad parkour, challenge courses test users' running and climbing and agility and strength in ways that involve competition with others.

Stephanie Devine, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for a Red Bud, Ill.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment and other site furnishings, said even folks who can afford a gym membership are drawn to outdoor fitness choices. Not many health clubs have challenge courses after all.

"People want to be challenged, they want to try something new and different, not only for themselves, but also something to do with friends and their community members," said Devine. "Outdoor programs help trainers and users alike offer the ability to try something new and avoid burnout from the same routine."

Callison said the obstacle courses attract repeat users mainly because of the competitive aspect.

"(Kids) loved to see if they could outrun their dad," he said. "The obstacle-course style of outdoor fitness is one of the most exciting prospects because it encourages multigenerational activity. You can put an outdoor fitness park near a playground, and the mom can watch the kid and the son can see mom. Mom's setting a good example by exercising, but when you bring mom and son together on an obstacle course at the same time, to run a race, that's big. They're engaged at the same time, and they're both creating healthy habits that last a lifetime."

To join the growing ranks of communities that have installed some sort of outdoor fitness, homework needs to be done. How do you know it's right for your area? What equipment is best? What location will maximize the equipment's use?

TPL's Compton said communities that qualify for Fitness Zones are typically underserved and financially challenged.

"We start by trying to understand the community, its assets and its challenges," she said. "We don't go into a community saying, 'You guys need a Fitness Zone,' but rather, 'Who lives here and what are the resources they would really like to benefit from?' We have an understanding of all types of design elements and programming and help work with the community to try to translate their vision into built form."


Canvas the neighborhood in need. What do residents like about the existing space, and what do they not like about it? Are there groups already using the area under consideration, like a tai chi group or a women's walking group?

Find out the residents' hopes for the area. "What do you envision doing here?" Compton said. "But also ask folks to think outside the bounds of their park. If folks are facing the challenge of, 'There's nowhere in my neighborhood I can safely go for a run,' or, 'There's no gym in the neighborhood, or, 'Our gym just closed down,' those can give you clues as to the type of needs a community has rather than just focusing the conversation on the boundaries of the park.

"How can a park be a solution to these broader challenges they're facing?"

Abel asks potential clients different questions, like, what will be motivating, challenging and engaging, that will give people a reason to return? What complementary items, such as shade and benches, can turn the outdoor gym into a community destination?

"It's all about communication," she said. "Ultimately, our mutual goal is to create a successful project that will be constantly used by the community and will be money well spent. For this reason, we tailor the unit selection to each project and customize the gym layouts to fit the unique needs of each community."

Pamela Galera is the parks manager for the city of Anaheim, Calif., which has several outdoor fitness areas and is considering obstacle course layouts. She said in the past decade outdoor fitness has been one of the top requests by community members in the 54-square-mile jurisdiction.

When the department is planning to improve a park or build a new park, it has community meetings to solicit suggestions, Galera said. She said the fitness equipment makes the most sense along trails, so walkers and runners can combine strength training, or near playgrounds so parents and grandparents can keep an eye on kids while exercising.


"We don't automatically put them in every park, just like we don't put a playground in every park," she said. "They're just very popular amenities, and we consider them every time we do a design."

Galera said other locational consideration are crucial and regional. "The shade aspect is really, really important," she said. "It's requested by the community. Some of the locations in full blaring sun, we don't see as much use—it's just not comfortable."

She said the surface surrounding the equipment needs to be thought out as well. Decomposed granite invites puddles, and concrete is expensive.

"What I'd tell somebody is take a look at the whole picture, not just the equipment itself. So, really consider the placement of the surfacing and the shade," said Galera. "It's nice to have a drinking fountain nearby. We really look at it holistically. We wouldn't just plop the equipment down at an existing park."

Callison emphasized a community's knowledge of itself helps maximize outdoor fitness use. "It's important they understand the why," he said. "If you're just adding outdoor fitness to say we checked a box, that's fine. You're never going to fail by providing better opportunities for health and wellness, but understand why.

"Do you have a population who are not involved in team sports that aren't being active and need something to engage them? Then that's a great solution. A population with special needs? Over 50? Know who your community is right now, and who it's going to be in five or 10 years. Be in touch with your community. You need to be thinking about the cost and the benefit."

He cited benefits like insurance rates and hospitalizations declining in communities with more fitness options.

"People really need to think about what happens after it's installed," he said. "How are you going to market it? How are you going to program that space? How can you add onto it in five years? Be thinking about it strategically, that this is maybe not a one-and-done situation; this might be something that evolves over time as the needs of your community change. Be mindful of it so we can be mindful of it when we're planning your space."

He said sometimes companies that manufacture and sell the equipment and course will help with programming and marketing ideas through information on websites and actual promotional materials, such as the National Accept the Challenge Day in September 2018. Communities with challenge courses received an event in a box, including posters, T-shirts, and hats, to promote a day in the park. There were prizes for highest attendance, most downloads of the course app and fastest average time.

"It was 100% to raise awareness," he said. "Programming and marketing is essential. You can build it and some people will come to it, yes, but to make sure it's successful you've got to add the programming component and you have to market it, you have to let people know it's there. These special events go a long way in promoting it and making sure people know it's there."


The future of specialized outdoor fitness seems bright. Its popularity preceded the COVID pandemic, which has spurred people to move outdoors for exercise and increased attendance at parks and trails, and in turn further raised awareness of outside exercise equipment and challenge courses.

"We have seen a surge in use of outdoor spaces as community members have gone outside in unprecedented numbers," said Abel. "It's our hope that over time, many more people will come to recognize the importance of outdoor fitness as equally viable as indoor equipment when it comes to getting in shape and staying healthy."

Devine said that as the pandemic continues into 2021, exercise in all forms has a role to play in mental health as well. She cited recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey: In the third week of July, 30% of adults had symptoms of depressive disorder, compared with 6.6% last year, and 36% had symptoms of an anxiety disorder, compared with 8.2% last year.

"While people scramble to set up at-home workout facilities or find other means of exercise, outdoor fitness parks provide a perfect solution," she said. "Exercising outdoors allows people to work out freely, at their own pace, and provides the ability to physically distance when appropriate.

"I think we are just at the tip of a much bigger explosion in outdoor fitness spaces. As we see more people move to outdoor workouts, equipment providers are going to have to evolve with the trends and needs of communities of all shapes and sizes. I think we will see a lot of indoor gyms open outdoor spaces and communities expand their offerings for all ages and walks of life. Programming will continue to be a huge need to help people be the best they can be."

Compton tied outdoor fitness options to not only physical and mental health, but societal health as well.

"One of the things that's really come to light is that the dual crises of racial injustice and pandemic have brought more to the surface the challenges we've been struggling with in terms of inequity and inequity in health outcomes," Compton said. "Our parks are such a critical resource to start to address those challenges, and Fitness Zones are a great component of an overall strategy toward that goal.

"We're also in the midst of an economic crisis. A gym membership is one of those things people will let go of as they struggle to make ends meet. It's a public health element but also an economic element that parks have the opportunity to provide access to free fitness resources at a time when a lot of people are really going to be struggling with alternatives." RM