Feature Article - September 2018
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Everyone's Gym

Outdoor Fitness Reaches All Ages, Abilities

By Joseph Bush

When your town grows from 4,000 people to nearly 50,000 in 30 years, all demographics of the population contribute to the boom.

Apex, N.C., is a suburb of Raleigh, and its younger families have attracted grandparents, according to John Brown, the town's parks and recreation director. All of them want to be active and have made that clear with votes authorizing higher taxes for recreation.

"They expect a lot of amenities and don't mind paying for them," Brown said. "We can't keep up with it."

The mix of young and old has something in common: The town with 10 miles of public greenway and 500 acres of parkland wants both groups to get fit outdoors more often.

Brown wants to combat youth obesity, and his department armed itself in 2017 with an outdoor course designed and built by a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based recreation and play equipment manufacturer and its partner based in Morrisville, N.C. Several equipment-based obstacles involving climbing, balancing, rotating and combinations of them all are connected by short sprints. A 25-yard sprinting area off to the side allows users to run obstacle-free.

The course reflects the nation's fascination with two recreational trends: outdoor obstacle races and American Ninja Warrior-type activities. It's fitness as a series of varied activities meant to be done consecutively from a start to a finish. And while research on the benefits of outdoor fitness equipment use specifically is limited, the benefits of any exercise are well established, and being outside adds the important element of the sun's contribution to our bodies producing vitamin D.

Designed for kids age 13 and above, the Apex course is touted on the department's website as the first of its kind in the country. The same site says that though the course was meant for teens, the department intends to program with it for all ages and abilities.

"Outdoor fitness and recreation is a big deal for us," Brown said. "Our senior population is very active and wants things to do outdoors as well as indoors."

So important is that population to Apex and Brown that the department applied for and won a grant from AARP, formerly known as American Association of Retired Persons, to purchase outdoor fitness equipment specifically for use by seniors.

Brown said the equipment provider identified the site, which will include wheelchair-accessible equipment that offers a little less resistance. They also helped with the site layout and the quote for the approximately $50,000 project. The equipment will be in the middle of an upcoming $34 million park effort, next to a large playground.

"They could go out with their grandkids, and while the kids are playing on the playground or soccer fields, they could use the fitness equipment," Brown said.

Today's seniors remember the original outdoor fitness areas and equipment—no, not trees, but parcourse or fitness trails. The first was a 1968 Swiss invention: a walking or jogging path on the side of which were intermittent pieces of resistance or body weight resistance equipment to work different parts of the body.

Those courses, still found today if they've been well maintained, didn't take into account different ages or abilities, and exercise science regardless of age or ability has advanced in the 50 years since, said Allison Abel, director of marketing for an Anaheim, Calif.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment.

"Functional fitness is currently a trend, and the outdoor fitness industry has responded by making the experience available in parks, along trails and in other outdoor settings," Abel said. "Exciting fitness rigs similar to those found in indoor gyms, with features such as cannonball pull-ups and other advanced exercises, are now available for the outdoor space.

"There are also units featuring attachment points for suspension trainers, facilitating a nearly innumerable array of exercises. In some parks, even kickboxing stations have found their way into the outdoor gyms. These new units do an excellent job of providing workouts."

Basically, anything you can do indoors you can do outside, but Abel said planning is crucial when considering outdoor fitness areas and equipment, not only because of different ages but also because of varying fitness levels. For instance, some equipment features adjustable-resistance mechanisms, which can tailor the workout to each user's ability level.

Abel said, for example, that her company offers a series of equipment that features bidirectional resistance, which prevents sudden recoil of equipment components, providing a solution for locations adjacent to playgrounds.

Functional fitness is currently a trend, and the outdoor fitness industry has responded by making the experience available in parks, along trails and in other outdoor settings.

"Bodyweight resistance units are commonly used by entry- to intermediate-level park visitors," Abel said. "Resistance-free apparatuses are well suited to seniors, as they can help them regain some of their lost agility and enhance range-of-motion."

Seniors aren't the only group that needs user-friendly equipment. Minimum accessibility includes equipment spacing and surfacing material, for instance, but Abel said there can be more. One of her company's lines of fitness equipment allows for both the able-bodied and those in wheelchairs to exercise on the same unit, without the wheelchair user having to transfer.