Feature Article - July 2015
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Take It Outside

Outdoor Fitness Areas Brings Fitness to All

By Kelli Ra Anderson

It is a form of recreation whose time has come. Outdoor fitness exercise areas in public parks are growing fast, and for good reason. Municipalities and recreation departments love them because they are incredibly effective in engaging pubic fitness and because they are very affordable. (In fact, they are about the most cost-effective form of recreation money can buy in cost per energy unit burned—an estimated 10 cents per person, compared to $1.50 per person for traditional spaces like tennis courts).

And the public loves them because they're fun, communal, intergenerational, effective and best of all—they're free. What's not to love?

Of course, outdoor fitness and fitness equipment is nothing new. Decades ago communities saw the installation of fitness stations along running courses with a variety of stationary bars and beams intended to enhance the running experience. The predecessors of today's outdoor fitness craze, however, have virtually disappeared from the recreation landscape. The difference between then and now? A broader vision of function and appeal—to provide a wide spectrum of fitness opportunity for all ages and abilities.

Thanks to visionaries like Adrian Benepe (former commissioner of New York City's park service, and current vice president and director of city park development for the Trust for Public Land), outdoor fitness gyms outfitted with durable exercise equipment are literally mushrooming around the world. From Alaska and Canada to Nevada and the Middle East, outdoor gyms—copywrited as "Fitness Zones" by the Trust, a national nonprofit land conservation organization—are found in all kinds of climates and used by a variety of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic demographics.

To date, about 100 Fitness Zones have been created in public parks around the country, where the Trust has helped communities partner with public agencies, cities and county governments to put together packages with private and public funding.

Costs range from $50,000 to $200,000 by some estimates, depending on the number of pieces of equipment, but are often shared by multiple groups. The Outdoor Fitness Park in Newark, Ohio, for example, a park used around the year and situated near a busy bike path and dorms of Ohio State University and Central Ohio Technical College campus, was made possible by a community partnership between the City of Newark, the Patricia R. and Herbert J. Murphy Foundation and the Licking County Foundation.

Equipment Options

The appeal for users is also the ever-evolving designs of exercise apparatus.

"No more than five to six years ago, they started making fitness equipment that has cardio and weight-bearing exercise equipment durable enough to handle the rigors of weather and repeated uses and misuses," said Benepe about a key reformation in the outdoor exercise movement that has everything from lower-maintenance traditional stationary forms of equipment like sit-up benches or push up bars, to moving elements that mimic indoor equipment like ellipticals, recumbent bikes and rowing machines.

Outdoor fitness exercise areas in public parks are growing fast, and for good reason.

The latter come in many designs and use a variety of mechanisms like enclosed rubber or magnets and even hydraulic applications to create adjustable resistance designs that use a person's body weight for more personalized workouts to cater to all ages and abilities, including wheelchair-accessible designs.

The four-season durability of these designs shouldn't come as a surprise given the playground equipment industry's experience with such material as powder coatings, graffiti-resistant materials and safety surfaces. According to Keith Rattay, assistant city manager and director of public service in Mission Viejo, Calif., it's important to think of outdoor gyms as not dissimilar to playground equipment. "It's exactly like playground equipment in maintenance—very similar in that regard," he explained. "The same expectation of a playground is what you would have in a workout environment like that." And like playgrounds, the public enjoys them free of cost.

Free and Clear

"The beauty is with a very small piece of land for a very low price, you get a free outdoor gym focused on needy neighborhoods where people are poor and don't have options for exercise with a surprisingly diverse demographic that uses them, from teens to grandparents," Benepe explained about one of Fitness Zone's most appealing applications.

After attending a session on outdoor fitness spaces at the National Recreation and Park Association conference in Atlanta in 2011, John Curran, director of parks and recreation of Tinley Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, was inspired to bring the idea to his community. In July of 2012 they opened an outdoor fitness gym in their preexisting Centennial Park next to a playground and well-used walking path. "We've just had a fantastic response from people," he said of the 10-piece equipment space.

"One day I was visiting the park and a guy working out asked me if I was with the park district," Curran recalled of one notable moment. "He said to me, 'I gotta tell you, I lost my job and can't afford a fitness membership right now. I'm here every day and I want to thank you.' It was great to hear that we're meeting the need and not just people who can't afford it but people who want to work outdoors."

Others, too, have remarkable stories about its community-building impact in crime-prone neighborhoods where seniors and teens find themselves coming together to exercise, forging new relationships and a stronger sense of community and pride of place. Families, too, often separated by interests and activity, find themselves coming together in a common purpose or space, multi-tasking kid-play with parent and grandparent workouts.