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

Who Benefits & How?

Abel noted that many obstacles exist in maintaining a fitness-focused lifestyle, with some of the biggest ones being "lack of time, not wanting to exercise alone, not knowing how to start, fear of injury and, in the case of private indoor gyms, the indoor environment and the cost."

"Outdoor fitness equipment allows people to overcome these obstacles," she added. "For one, it allows people to exercise with family members who would not go to indoor gyms. This means that family members and friends can accomplish two important things at the same time: spending quality time together and exercising."

And, "While equipment in private indoor gyms can be complicated and potentially intimidating, outdoor fitness equipment is typically simple in design and intuitive to use. Frequently, users that work out using their own body weight for resistance will reduce the chances of injury. Furthermore, outdoor fitness equipment presents no financial barriers to use, and is more inviting to those who'd rather exercise in the fresh air," Abel said. "Studies have shown that the outdoor environment promotes mental and emotional health, and that users will be active for longer periods of time when exercising outdoors."

Spencer noted that her company's research arm, CORE (the Center for Outreach, Research and Education), has done extensive research with scholars of fitness and kineseology to understand the benefits, published in the guidebook "Outdoor Adult Fitness Parks: Best Practices for Promoting Community Health by Increasing Physical Activity." She also offered a list of some evidence-based findings of outdoor fitness parks.

For example, she said, they:

>> Make exercise fun: "The addition of nature and fresh air helps make exercising fun and, therefore, more effective. Combining outdoor exercise, natural light and sensory stimulation has a 'salutogenic' effect: reducing stress and encouraging healthy behaviors. Exercising outdoors provides exposure to fresh air, nature and sunlight, which increases important levels of vitamin D."

In addition, research "suggests people who exercise outdoors are more likely to repeat the behavior and are more likely to engage in the activity longer than those who exercise indoors."

>> Are eco-friendly: "Equipment used in outdoor adult fitness parks requires no electricity, is low maintenance and uses very little human resources. A majority of the materials used in their construction, including aluminum, steel and sustainable plastics, are recyclable. The minimal impact on the natural environment is attractive to the developer, the funder and the end user, and many participants may link positive environmental contribution with greater enjoyment of exercise."

>> Promote friendships: "People who use outdoor adult fitness parks often socialize while exercising, strengthening community and interpersonal relationships. These relationships may then support increased use as participants more readily interact with each other, offering encouragement, motivation and support."

>> Are available to everyone: While there are numerous indoor fitness options, they also can be "costly and inconvenient," Spencer said. "Outdoor adult fitness parks can remove these barriers, which is especially attractive in lower-income neighborhoods. In fact, residents of high-poverty counties in the U.S. have obesity rates much greater than those in wealthy counties. By increasing the number of outdoor adult fitness parks available, especially in underserved communities, there is increased likelihood of creating positive change in overall fitness and health."

>> Improve health: "Regular physical activity is essential to health and longevity. Many people report preferring exercising outdoors, which may also have a greater effect on mental and physical well-being. Outdoor exercise is also rated as being more restorative compared [with] indoors, since natural environments reduce emotional and physiological stress. Exercising outdoors provides all the physical benefits of indoor exercise (blood flow, improved cardiovascular health, improved strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.) and can also provide vital exposure to sunlight that increases important levels of vitamin D, unlike indoor exercise."

>> Attract new users to outdoor environments: "Outdoor adult fitness parks provide additional opportunities for adults to recreate and participate in physical activity outdoors. People who exercise regularly may be attracted to these new outdoor locations, and create a true fitness 'destination' within a neighborhood. This may also help attract more non-users to the new and popular destination. Outdoor adult fitness parks located within sight lines of a playground promote active behavior in adult family members, increase the time spent at the playground, and help promote the importance of lifelong fitness on children."

>> Provide training opportunities: "Outdoor adult fitness parks are ideal locations for people with physically demanding jobs to augment their training. Firefighters, police teams and college athletes, among others, can benefit from the 'real world' environment, and the ability to set up training exercises in adverse weather."

>> Support community capital: Outdoor fitness attracts "… health-conscious people to a neighborhood and can often influence the behavior of non-exercisers, expanding the benefits associated with regular exercise to a greater number of people.

"Design is one of the most important criteria for a good outdoor fitness park," Spencer said. "If you think of the gym where there are hundreds of pieces of equipment to choose from, then compare to an outdoor fitness park where you may only have between six and 20 pieces of equipment, you can see how choosing the right 6 to 20 pieces to provide a well-rounded workout is critical. If all the apparatus in the space is designed to concentrate on only one area of fitness, for example, upper body, then users are not getting the full spectrum of exercise that is so important for good health and fitness."