Guest Column - July 2013
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Parks & Playgrounds

A Natural Fit
Great Workouts in the Park

By John McConkey

Wouldn't it be great if, in the interest of building healthier citizens, we could get more people to work out and more people to spend time enjoying the outdoors? Wouldn't it be even better if we could accomplish both goals at once?

On March 19, 2010, the City of San Antonio received a $15.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support initiatives that would "reduce obesity, increase physical activity and improve nutrition-critical actions for combating chronic diseases and promoting health." In accepting the award, Mayor Julian Castro said, "Adopting policies that increase physical activity and promote healthy eating and living will strengthen our families and communities, while saving millions in health care costs associated with the treatment of chronic diseases."

Among the most innovative strategies implemented through this grant was a plan to increase opportunities for the public to use recreational and fitness facilities at no cost. In other words, instead of trying to get more citizens to join health clubs, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District would bring outdoor fitness equipment to its parks and walking trails and let park-goers use them free of charge.

Sandy Jenkins, parks project manager for the City of San Antonio, partnered with the Health District to make it happen. "As a result of this grant, the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department partnered with the Metro Health District to come up with a variety of different initiatives to get more visitors into our parks and exercising," Jenkins said. "Our city has one of the highest diabetes rates in the nation, and diabetes and obesity are directly related. So the thought was that if we can get more people into the parks to walk and work out that would be a very good thing.

"We started in the summer of 2010 by placing fitness equipment in 12 of our 244 parks, and the reaction from the public was so strong that we increased that to 30 parks by May 2012," Jenkins said. "We initially selected sites along walking paths, thinking that walkers would appreciate the opportunity to get a more varied workout during their daily routines. That was an immediate success, so we also experimented with installing fitness equipment adjacent to popular playgrounds. We thought that parents and caregivers could now be more active as they watched their children play, enabling them to get a multi-faceted workout, even during their busy days."

Within their 30 parks that include fitness equipment, the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department chose equipment that offers various exercises in order to give users a strong, balanced workout. In addition to the exercises provided, they considered the following when planning for outdoor fitness environments:

1. Access: Bring outdoor fitness equipment directly to park-goers by placing stations near walking/jogging trails and playgrounds that they are already using. To do this effectively, choose fitness equipment that offers design flexibility, which allows park planners to offer more tailored workouts within outdoor fitness environments.

2. Users: Provide fitness stations that offer appropriate challenge for all fitness levels, and make sure there is a full range of exercises available. Additionally, consider users' comfort levels with fitness equipment. Some may be unfamiliar with how to properly use the stations, so choose equipment that is intuitive, and provides signage or other resources to help ensure the safety of users.

3. Design: While fitness equipment should stand out enough to attract users, it should also complement the surrounding environment. In addition to a sleek design, the equipment should be manufactured using high-quality materials that will withstand the elements and heavy use.

To ensure a successful project, keep these items in mind when creating outdoor fitness environments. By doing so, the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department has seen healthy improvements in the behaviors of their citizens.