Feature Article - October 2020
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Fresh Air & Exercise

For Public Health, Prescribe Outdoor Fitness Areas

By Joe Bush

"People really need to think about what happens after it's installed," he said. "How are you going to market it? How are you going to program that space? How can you add onto it in five years? Be thinking about it strategically, that this is maybe not a one-and-done situation; this might be something that evolves over time as the needs of your community change. Be mindful of it so we can be mindful of it when we're planning your space."

He said sometimes companies that manufacture and sell the equipment and course will help with programming and marketing ideas through information on websites and actual promotional materials, such as the National Accept the Challenge Day in September 2018. Communities with challenge courses received an event in a box, including posters, T-shirts, and hats, to promote a day in the park. There were prizes for highest attendance, most downloads of the course app and fastest average time.

"It was 100% to raise awareness," he said. "Programming and marketing is essential. You can build it and some people will come to it, yes, but to make sure it's successful you've got to add the programming component and you have to market it, you have to let people know it's there. These special events go a long way in promoting it and making sure people know it's there."

The future of specialized outdoor fitness seems bright. Its popularity preceded the COVID pandemic, which has spurred people to move outdoors for exercise and increased attendance at parks and trails, and in turn further raised awareness of outside exercise equipment and challenge courses.

"We have seen a surge in use of outdoor spaces as community members have gone outside in unprecedented numbers," said Abel. "It's our hope that over time, many more people will come to recognize the importance of outdoor fitness as equally viable as indoor equipment when it comes to getting in shape and staying healthy."

Devine said that as the pandemic continues into 2021, exercise in all forms has a role to play in mental health as well. She cited recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey: In the third week of July, 30% of adults had symptoms of depressive disorder, compared with 6.6% last year, and 36% had symptoms of an anxiety disorder, compared with 8.2% last year.

"While people scramble to set up at-home workout facilities or find other means of exercise, outdoor fitness parks provide a perfect solution," she said. "Exercising outdoors allows people to work out freely, at their own pace, and provides the ability to physically distance when appropriate.

"I think we are just at the tip of a much bigger explosion in outdoor fitness spaces. As we see more people move to outdoor workouts, equipment providers are going to have to evolve with the trends and needs of communities of all shapes and sizes. I think we will see a lot of indoor gyms open outdoor spaces and communities expand their offerings for all ages and walks of life. Programming will continue to be a huge need to help people be the best they can be."

Compton tied outdoor fitness options to not only physical and mental health, but societal health as well.

"One of the things that's really come to light is that the dual crises of racial injustice and pandemic have brought more to the surface the challenges we've been struggling with in terms of inequity and inequity in health outcomes," Compton said. "Our parks are such a critical resource to start to address those challenges, and Fitness Zones are a great component of an overall strategy toward that goal.

"We're also in the midst of an economic crisis. A gym membership is one of those things people will let go of as they struggle to make ends meet. It's a public health element but also an economic element that parks have the opportunity to provide access to free fitness resources at a time when a lot of people are really going to be struggling with alternatives." RM