Feature Article - September 2019
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Getting Fit in the Great Outdoors

Innovative Equipment to Expand Your Community of Wellness

By Deborah L. Vence

Outdoor fitness equipment is becoming a staple at many parks today, giving park-goers the opportunity to work out and get into shape for free, all while enjoying the fresh air. Everything from challenge courses to multigenerational space to adult fitness areas has helped to propel the growing popularity of outdoor equipment, with innovations continually expanding the audience for this popular amenity.

A Growing Trend

With more parks incorporating outdoor fitness equipment, "The variety of exercises [keeps] expanding in the outdoor fitness space. But, one thing we've seen consistently is a desire to ensure the gyms are places where everyone can come together to be fit," said Allison Abel, director of marketing for an Orange County, Calif.-based company that provides outdoor fitness equipment for parks, senior centers, schools and the U.S. military.

"While an outdoor fitness area may include equipment for those at high fitness levels, such as a functional fitness rig, ultimately project planners are looking for a way to serve as many people as possible, and to do it in a way that brings people together and fosters socialization," she said.

"More and more, you will see a combination of units to serve elite athletes and those just needing to get in some basic physical activity," Abel said. "In particular, those with disabilities are being given opportunities to work out alongside their able-bodied family members, friends and colleagues, and once project planners know that this is something they can help facilitate, they are eager to make it happen."

Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that offers a wide range of brands focused on play and recreation products and services, and its Center for Outreach, Research and Education, said that "Many customers are installing them near playgrounds, so that busy families can maximize their time at a park. Adults can work out but still keep an eye on their children at play.

"We are also seeing a huge trend toward obstacle course equipment. Obstacle course racing, or OCR, is the fastest growing sport in the world right now," Spencer said. "Coupled with the popularity of programs like 'American Ninja Warrior,' the excitement and popularity around this type of fitness is exploding. To answer the call, manufacturers are creating challenge courses that can be installed in public spaces. The very best ones allow families the opportunity to compete together in an intergenerational way. Obstacles are built to be intuitive, and provide several ways to traverse, so that they are applicable for all athletic abilities, with the option to use obstacles in more challenging ways as a person's strength and confidence increases."

In addition, she said, apps are available for some challenge courses so that "people can compete on a national level and see how their time stacks up to others playing on the same course design throughout the world."

Some of the reasons for the popularity of outdoor fitness equipment include the fact that there is no pressure to perform.

"People love to get fresh air and, best of all, it's free to use," Spencer said. "This is of key importance with underserved communities that may not be able to join, or even get to a gym. They make exercise accessible and affordable to all.

"Well-designed equipment is intuitive, so doesn't require special training or understanding of weight loading to use," she added, "so people of all ability levels can use it comfortably and confidently."

Meanwhile, Abel suggested that outdoor fitness equipment is popular because is it "so versatile and so universal."

"By adding fitness equipment to a park, you can expand the appeal of that park to nearly everyone in the surrounding community—from teens to seniors—regardless of their ability level or where they are in their fitness journey," Abel said. "We consider it to be the number-one amenity for the community by virtue of the fact that it can be used by so many and promotes not only healthy lifestyles, but also closer-knit communities.

"There have even been instances in which areas that formerly were overrun by negative elements have been totally changed when that area was transformed into a fitness zone. The positive activity pushed out the negative," she said, citing Simms Park as one example.

Simms Park in Bellflower, Calif., she said, includes "a huge variety of units, and you see everyone from grandparents to local amateur bodybuilders working out at the park alongside each other. Formerly the site was an unused structure housing shuffleboard courts, and the park would experience frequent illegal activity in and around the building. But that was all replaced with the grand opening of the fitness area.

"In the first few months the gym was open, park staff counted literally thousands of users coming to the fitness area," she said. "Even a smaller selection of units can have the same effect—the equipment selection just needs to be chosen wisely to accommodate all the intended users."