Feature Article - July 2015
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Take It Outside

Outdoor Fitness Areas Brings Fitness to All

By Kelli Ra Anderson

Let's Get Physical

From well-to-do communities known for fitness zeal like Orange County, Calif., to regular suburbs and smaller towns, rich and poor, outdoor fitness areas are finding favor with many kinds of people for many purposes, but all with one common trait: People simply enjoy the idea and experience of working out in nature.

Research shows that outdoor gyms fulfill our basic need to connect with nature in a time when digital distractions and busy lifestyles tend to crowd out these types of experiences. It only stands to reason, then, that placing these areas near scenic landscapes, by trees, water or embedding in the landscaping, adds to the overall experience.

Although a relatively new phenomenon with studies under way to quantify the impact they are having in the fight against obesity and the goal to enhance the longevity and quality of life, anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest it is a fitness model already making its mark.

"Public experts tell us don't bother trying to prove people are getting healthier—prove equipment is being used and we'll draw the correlation," Benepe affirmed. "There is no doubt about that. The real empirical evidence is that people who use parks get healthier. Just tell us people are running, working out or playing tennis, and we'll assume the rest."

Location, Location, Location

The trick, however, is to know where these spaces will be most visible and how to design them for maximum impact for the unique needs of each community.

Perhaps more than any other kind of outdoor fitness program, location is the number one predictor of success. Whereas many other kinds of athletic fields or trails are destination spaces in and of themselves, outdoor gyms find their success riding on the coattails of athletic activity already in progress.

"It's paramount that a trail is located on a trail the community uses and that's why it's successful," Rattay said about the success of their outdoor space in Mission Viejo located near a walking trail and a senior center. "You need a place where a lot of people are around."

Ideally located by trails for walking, jogging or biking, outdoor gyms are a great accompaniment for people already in a fitness mindset looking for additional ways to stay fit and enjoy the outdoors. They are also frequently positioned near playgrounds to provide caregivers and family members of all ages a chance to do something productive with time ordinarily spent just sitting.

Other recommendations include placing them near existing parking areas for convenient access, and/or near athletic fields where existing amenities like restrooms, water fountains and trash receptacles are already in place and ready to be shared. And like any recreation area, good seating and shade are a must, provided either by nearby trees or shade structures to keep exercisers in the cool and able to rest between reps or while waiting a turn to use the next apparatus.

Unique amenities, however, can include providing hand sanitizers to use before and after equipment use, which was specifically requested by users in Mission Viejo. Other parks, however, discovered that with a plethora of bikers using nearby trails, many already had their own towels and wipes so no such amenity was required, while bike racks were an absolute must. It always depends on the needs of each demographic.

Another benefit to placing these near already frequented and popular areas is the convenience of a shared location for the use of snow removal equipment, safety inspections and routine maintenance checks. By and large, these areas are usually placed together in one space, not spread out over a wide area.

"By clustering the exercise equipment in one location, groups of people using the gym together is a great way to help reinforce the social aspect of exercising while also clustering it and providing accessibility is key to the success of our gym," said James Couillard, acting director of Marion County Parks and Recreation Department in Marion County, Fla., noting the importance of providing shade. "We chose our site wisely, as the early morning and evening exercisers get the added benefit of being in the shade, something that is important here in Florida."

While most prefer to arrange their spaces like a gym, placing equipment according to body workout (core, upper body, and lower; or aerobic, strength, balance/flexibility and muscle-building), those addressing the needs of a predominant power-walking demographic find that placing them at half-mile intervals along a fitness trail allows power walkers to stop to do an intense exercise for 30 seconds to spike their heart rates before continuing on the trail to the next site. Knowing your users is essential to choosing the kinds of equipment and their optimum layouts.

To that end, Couillard strongly recommends using a fitness professional to help make the most intelligent choices. Some manufacturing companies even provide best practices manuals for that very reason. In every case, equipment needs to be chosen according to the positive health benefits to users that will actually get used and that aren't too complicated to inhibit use.

Signage and some form of instruction (classes or videos available on smart phones) are an important ingredient for success. While some forms of equipment are familiar to regular gym attenders and need little explanation, others less familiar with equipment will benefit from instruction about good position and posture for each apparatus, as well as information about the optimum number of reps.

Many other kinds of athletic fields or trails are destination spaces in and of themselves, outdoor gyms find their success riding on the coattails of athletic activity already in progress.

An early adopter of the outdoor fitness area, Mission Viejo developed online instruction videos that have been well received by users at their park, while some have decided to provide classes. "In May we are going to start education instructor classes for people after hours," said Brittany Bruner, fitness coordinator for risk and benefit services with the Marion County Board of County Commissioners in Ocala, Fla.

Additionally, signage is also necessary to explain the rules, especially to discourage underage users when a fitness area has been placed near a playground. "Kids are inquisitive so their first instinct is to go try the exercise equipment that is typically not suited for 7- or 8-year-olds," Couillard warned. Signage posting the rules can put a stop to that.

Attracting people to these areas is seldom a problem—it's getting enough parks to satisfy the growing demand. In the case of an outdoor gym in Siloam Springs, Ark., last year, built on donated land and with the help of a $37,000 grant, the City and John Brown Springs University, they are already considering the possibility of expanding the park's success to the other side of town. "We wanted something that would remove the barriers where anyone would want to work out and the outdoor gym is what we came up with," said Amy Martin of their successful park and its ADA equipment.

Newark, Ohio, is already moving forward. "Due to the overwhelming success of the outdoor fitness area, the Newark Parks Department is already looking at other locations within our city parks where we can install other outdoor fitness stations," said Chuck Jackson, service director of parks and recreation in special events. "The thing that we have learned as a department is the more we create opportunities for our citizens to get outside and enjoy nature, the quality of life for everyone is improved."