Feature Article - October 2020
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Fresh Air & Exercise

For Public Health, Prescribe Outdoor Fitness Areas

By Joe Bush

Stephanie Devine, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for a Red Bud, Ill.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment and other site furnishings, said even folks who can afford a gym membership are drawn to outdoor fitness choices. Not many health clubs have challenge courses after all.

"People want to be challenged, they want to try something new and different, not only for themselves, but also something to do with friends and their community members," said Devine. "Outdoor programs help trainers and users alike offer the ability to try something new and avoid burnout from the same routine."

Callison said the obstacle courses attract repeat users mainly because of the competitive aspect.

"(Kids) loved to see if they could outrun their dad," he said. "The obstacle-course style of outdoor fitness is one of the most exciting prospects because it encourages multigenerational activity. You can put an outdoor fitness park near a playground, and the mom can watch the kid and the son can see mom. Mom's setting a good example by exercising, but when you bring mom and son together on an obstacle course at the same time, to run a race, that's big. They're engaged at the same time, and they're both creating healthy habits that last a lifetime."

To join the growing ranks of communities that have installed some sort of outdoor fitness, homework needs to be done. How do you know it's right for your area? What equipment is best? What location will maximize the equipment's use?

TPL's Compton said communities that qualify for Fitness Zones are typically underserved and financially challenged.

"We start by trying to understand the community, its assets and its challenges," she said. "We don't go into a community saying, 'You guys need a Fitness Zone,' but rather, 'Who lives here and what are the resources they would really like to benefit from?' We have an understanding of all types of design elements and programming and help work with the community to try to translate their vision into built form."

Canvas the neighborhood in need. What do residents like about the existing space, and what do they not like about it? Are there groups already using the area under consideration, like a tai chi group or a women's walking group?

Find out the residents' hopes for the area. "What do you envision doing here?" Compton said. "But also ask folks to think outside the bounds of their park. If folks are facing the challenge of, 'There's nowhere in my neighborhood I can safely go for a run,' or, 'There's no gym in the neighborhood, or, 'Our gym just closed down,' those can give you clues as to the type of needs a community has rather than just focusing the conversation on the boundaries of the park.

"How can a park be a solution to these broader challenges they're facing?"

Abel asks potential clients different questions, like, what will be motivating, challenging and engaging, that will give people a reason to return? What complementary items, such as shade and benches, can turn the outdoor gym into a community destination?

"It's all about communication," she said. "Ultimately, our mutual goal is to create a successful project that will be constantly used by the community and will be money well spent. For this reason, we tailor the unit selection to each project and customize the gym layouts to fit the unique needs of each community."

Pamela Galera is the parks manager for the city of Anaheim, Calif., which has several outdoor fitness areas and is considering obstacle course layouts. She said in the past decade outdoor fitness has been one of the top requests by community members in the 54-square-mile jurisdiction.

When the department is planning to improve a park or build a new park, it has community meetings to solicit suggestions, Galera said. She said the fitness equipment makes the most sense along trails, so walkers and runners can combine strength training, or near playgrounds so parents and grandparents can keep an eye on kids while exercising.

"We don't automatically put them in every park, just like we don't put a playground in every park," she said. "They're just very popular amenities, and we consider them every time we do a design."

Galera said other locational consideration are crucial and regional. "The shade aspect is really, really important," she said. "It's requested by the community. Some of the locations in full blaring sun, we don't see as much use—it's just not comfortable."

She said the surface surrounding the equipment needs to be thought out as well. Decomposed granite invites puddles, and concrete is expensive.

"What I'd tell somebody is take a look at the whole picture, not just the equipment itself. So, really consider the placement of the surfacing and the shade," said Galera. "It's nice to have a drinking fountain nearby. We really look at it holistically. We wouldn't just plop the equipment down at an existing park."

Callison emphasized a community's knowledge of itself helps maximize outdoor fitness use. "It's important they understand the why," he said. "If you're just adding outdoor fitness to say we checked a box, that's fine. You're never going to fail by providing better opportunities for health and wellness, but understand why.

"Do you have a population who are not involved in team sports that aren't being active and need something to engage them? Then that's a great solution. A population with special needs? Over 50? Know who your community is right now, and who it's going to be in five or 10 years. Be in touch with your community. You need to be thinking about the cost and the benefit."

He cited benefits like insurance rates and hospitalizations declining in communities with more fitness options.