Guest Column - March 2015
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The Outdoor Gym: Benefits & Best Practices

By Allison Abel

There is an increasing effort by municipalities, healthcare providers and various nonprofit organizations to encourage adults to engage in physical activities in local public parks. In addition to the awareness campaigns designed to educate the public regarding healthier practices and better eating habits, outdoor gyms have become an inseparable tool of this effort.

Thousands of communities have discovered the many benefits of these unique amenities, which bring fitness into public spaces and give friends and family members, regardless of ability, the opportunity to exercise together. A 2011 RAND study of outdoor gyms installed in the Los Angeles area found that the gyms increased the number of new users at parks, and also increased energy expenditure ("Impact and Cost-Effectiveness of Family Fitness Zones: A Natural Experiment in Urban Public Parks"). A 2013 study of similar gyms in Miami reported similar findings.

These amenities play an important role in filling a gap, especially in low-income areas, as indoor gym memberships are cost-prohibitive for many and lack appeal to those who require encouragement and motivation.

Improved fitness is, naturally, the primary goal of cities installing outdoor fitness equipment. An outdoor gym with a thoughtful selection of units will cater to a diverse demographic, providing a challenging workout to individuals at every fitness level. Unlike in years past, the selection of equipment now includes not only the traditional pull-up bars and other static elements, but also apparatuses aiming to improve flexibility, boost balance and increase cardiovascular health. These relatively new concepts ensure individuals from youth to seniors have the opportunity to improve their health and wellness with activities appropriate to their needs. A diversity of fitness opportunities will have the side benefit of creating a multigenerational area that family members can use together.

Cities installing outdoor gyms demonstrate in a very concrete way that they care about the health and fitness of their constituents, but the benefits of a well-planned outdoor gym extend beyond just physical wellness. Perhaps more than any other park amenity, the gym brings unacquainted community members into close proximity to one another. Some equipment is even designed to accommodate multiple users, inviting conversation as individuals work out on the various elements. In this way, the outdoor gym can serve to strengthen community ties and increase social capital. This aspect of the gym has important implications for segments of the community more at risk of isolation, such as seniors and those with disabilities. In addition, the gym serves as a deterrent to vandalism and other crimes, as public spaces are occupied more frequently and for longer periods of time.

When planning an outdoor gym, various factors should be taken into consideration: the size of the space available, the type of layout desired (i.e., a large cluster or pods along a trail), the demographics the gym will serve, and so forth.

A relatively small area can serve a substantial number of users with the right equipment selection. Choose equipment that accommodates multiple users on each footprint to maximize the available space. For larger areas, the gym can be separated into various zones—one zone for entry-level exercises; one for boot-camp-style workouts; an open space for Zumba, stretching and other activities, etc.

When planning stations to be used along a path, it is always preferable to have a selection of units clustered together, or several pods of smaller clusters, rather than individual units spaced out along a trail. There are several benefits to this design concept: First, clusters of equipment create a social space, encouraging users to exercise with friends and family, and ultimately motivating people to exercise for longer periods of time. Second, a unit that is isolated in a remote section of a trail will be more vulnerable to vandalism than if all units are grouped together in a visible location. Another consideration is the fact that an occupied unit will be bypassed by walkers and joggers, who may not return to use that unit if it means making an additional loop around the trail. Finally, walkers and joggers will lose momentum if they stop at the stations; a cluster of exercise units used immediately before or after a trail run will more closely mirror the indoor gym workout experience.