Feature Article - September 2016
Find a printable version here

Building Healthier Communities

The Ins and Outs of Outdoor Fitness Areas

By Dave Ramont

No one disputes how beneficial regular exercise is for mind and body, yet we all know there's a lot of shiny new exercise equipment out there moonlighting as clothes racks and doorstops. It's also widely understood that spending time outdoors offers many physical and mental benefits. So it only makes sense that outdoor fitness parks are becoming more popular every day. These parks—which are generally free to the public—feature resistance-based exercise machines focusing on strength training, cardio, balance and agility, and flexibility.

Fred Wiechmann, vice president of marketing and product development at a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of play equipment, outdoor fitness equipment and related products, points to studies showing that people who exercise outdoors tend to exercise more frequently and for longer periods of time. "Moreover, outdoor fitness parks remove barriers that sometimes prevent people from participating in group exercise or personal fitness activities such as gym memberships. At times, we've seen community groups and recreation centers holding fitness classes and social meet-ups at our parks," he said.

Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), echoes how popular the parks have become, saying that they cross a broad demographic. "All the genders and age groups tend to work out together, so it becomes a very positive user experience and can generate a whole new group coming to your park."

Cost-Efficient for Owners AND Exercisers

Attracting new patrons is just one perk for communities and parks; affordability is also a tempting incentive. "Adding a fitness park is quick and inexpensive compared to a large masterplan," said Sam Mendelsohn, president and CEO of an Orange County, Calif.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment. "It's much easier to find a donor for a $100,000 project rather than raising funds for a minimum $5 million masterplan, which requires years of preparation and approval. Adding an outdoor fitness park to a local green area is a matter of a few short months, and the community can use it shortly after, allowing the donor to see their donation put to good use right away." (Their typical installation takes about one to two weeks.)

Adding a fitness park is quick and inexpensive compared to a large masterplan.

Benepe agrees, adding that Fitness Zones are great because they're small and, as park and playground facilities go, very inexpensive—going in quickly and providing the best bang for the buck in terms of exercise. He cites the example of how—in the space of a tennis court or smaller—you can install up to eight or 10 exercise stations, each one accommodating two to four users. "So you can have 30 or more users in the same space that two or four people might play tennis, and it costs less than putting in a tennis court or basketball court." He called it an "express train to better public health at a very low cost."

Centennial Park in Tinley Park, Ill., contains a configuration of trails adding up to almost two miles. Close by, a new playground was built and for several years the old playground site sat empty. Park visitors were looking for more exercise opportunities outdoors, so a fitness park was installed on the former playground site in 2012.

John Curran, director of Parks and Recreation, said they looked at placing the equipment throughout the path, but they found that people would rather work out all at once—walk the path and then work out, or vice versa. So they decided to put the equipment in one area. The equipment manufacturer helped with selection and design, and a company that normally installs playgrounds did the installation. The park ultimately purchased 10 machines, including a vertical press, elliptical machine, rowing machine and stationary bike. Two of the machines are wheelchair accessible.

Curran said that people flocked to the park right away, regardless of whether they could afford fitness centers or not, but that one man did approach him to say that he'd recently lost his job and could no longer afford a health club membership, so the fitness park was greatly appreciated.