Feature Article - October 2014
Find a printable version here

Happy Trails!

Outdoor Fitness Adventures Equal Fun for All Ages

By Jessica Royer Ocken

What if you could encourage your community members to get moving and better their health, as well as provide a way for whole families to have fun outdoors together, without having to create, fund or construct something entirely new?

You'd be interested, wouldn't you?

Communities around the country have been reaping exactly these benefits from outdoor fitness trails. Some are just for walking and jogging (with exercise activity stations along the way), while others add hiking and biking to the mix. But almost all of them have been constructed to cooperate with existing recreation options—from playgrounds to libraries to open green space—which not only enhances their exposure and encourages their use, it makes them much easier to construct and manage because you're not starting from scratch.

But you don't have to take our word for it. Read on to hear firsthand from municipalities and design pros who are creating and enjoying outdoor fitness trails across the United States.

Add Engagement for the Community

Not long ago, the Fleetwood Park Fitness Trail project in Fleetwood, Penn., added another layer of activity to the already bustling Fleetwood Borough Park. The site included a variety of entry points, a baseball field, a band shell and a playground, and quite a few people were walking there anyway, noted project architect Meridyth Cutler, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, HOMES, O+, a registered architect with Watkins Architect LTD - Synergetics in Fleetwood, Penn. "We just provided them with better equipment," she explained. They added fitness stations for assorted exercise activities along the existing trails, as well as extending the trails to provide different loop options for various workouts.

The borough was interested in adding something for adults on the property, "which is kind of a growing phenomenon," Cutler said. Now moms bringing kids to the playground can do the trail loop and get a workout, even walking with a baby. The trails are free and open to the public, the weather cooperates for their use about six to eight months out of the year, and plans to upgrade lighting in the park will eventually extend their hours of operation.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., the Youth and Family Development department (similar to Parks and Recreation in many communities) has been investing in community health and fitness since 1990, reported Rick O'Rear, ACSM PAPHS, recreation division manager for the department. They built a fantastic indoor fitness center in Warner Park, which has been well-loved by the community for 24 years now. So when professors at the University of Tennessee came to them requesting an outdoor fitness trail, it just made sense to put that in Warner Park as well. "It's an ideal location in the central part of the city, so it serves everyone fairly," O'Rear explained.

The 2/3-mile trail meanders through the park, and though it's designed for adult fitness, there's a zoo nearby, so lots of families and kids come through as well. "Adults are mechanical; they read all the signs and instructions, but kids get on the equipment and play," O'Rear said. "They're exercising naturally, and it makes for a bonding experience."

The university is close by, so athletic teams and various groups use the trail as part of their conditioning, and personal trainers put clients through their paces there as well. "The value of placement is huge," he added. "People come to the park for one thing, then check out the others, so they feed each other, and we're definitely attracting new people."

The city of San Antonio, Texas, is on a similar health kick, which was spurred by a sizeable 2011 grant from the CDC to combat obesity, explained Sandy Jenkins, parks project manager for the city. One of the ways they used the money was installing outdoor fitness stations, and they targeted areas with existing trails, hoping to encourage people to come out and use them more actively "and lose some weight in the process," she said.

San Antonio is now home to no less than 36 different outdoor fitness trails, "and we're hoping for more," Jenkins said. "We love them, and our users love them. They've been very good for San Antonio." Mayor Julian Castro, who will soon become U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, created a coordinating Fitness in the Park program for the city, which includes lots of outdoor fitness programming and activities, and further encouraged citizens to get out and use the fitness trails. The city has also installed outdoor fitness trails and playgrounds at five branch libraries, which has been another great way to cross-pollinate activities and get bookworms moving and playing too. "In the last two years since these trails were installed, our obesity rate has gone down 2 percent," Jenkins said. "Our population is more than 1 million, so that's a big difference!"