Feature Article - September 2021
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Outdoor Fitness Comes Into Its Own

New Outdoor Fitness Areas Improve Equipment, Amenities & Accessibility

By Chris Gelbach


The COVID-19 pandemic has reinvigorated interest in spending time outdoors. In its recent Outdoor Participation Report, the Outdoor Foundation saw total outdoor participation increase to 52.9% in 2020, up from 50.7% in 2019. At the same time, indoor gyms have suffered immensely. According to IHRSA, by the end of 2020, 17% of clubs had permanently closed, industry revenue fell by 58% relative to 2019, and 44% of the fitness industry workforce lost their jobs.

One recent survey even found that almost 35% of gym member respondents in the United States said they won't be returning to their gyms, even after being vaccinated. Many Americans plan to continue their new outdoor workout habits and forgo the gym moving forward.

At a personal level, the pandemic has taken a toll on the fitness of many Americans. In the American Psychological Association's February 2021 "Stress in America" survey, 42% of Americans reported undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic, with those gaining reporting an average gain of 29 pounds.

In this environment, outdoor fitness areas can be a great way for parks and recreation departments and other entities to help support the fitness and wellness goals of their communities. When they are designed and placed well, these areas can create more equitable and inclusive access to wellness, fitness and social opportunities. And when the right equipment is chosen and effective activations implemented, they can also attract not only fitness enthusiasts, but people who are looking to get back in shape or even to get active for the very first time.

"One of the main approaches to adding outdoor fitness that we are seeing is areas that serve a wide variety of users—everyone from teens to seniors, regardless of fitness level," said Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness products based in Orange County, Calif. "Fitness areas that are thoughtfully designed to be inclusive will do the greatest amount of good in the community."

Abel recommended considering what's already in the current area and areas close by, and what demographics are being served well by outdoor fitness equipment versus those who could be served better. "Adding outdoor fitness equipment is a relatively simple project compared to some other amenities, and existing areas can easily be enhanced with additional units to give the gyms broader appeal," Abel said.

Using a participatory design process that includes the community from the outset is also key. "We're seeing a lot more investment in understanding the community's needs and making sure that the community's voice is at the table," said Sadiya Muqueeth, director of community health for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). She also emphasized the importance of activating the spaces, an approach TPL has emphasized in the debut of the Fitness Zone areas it has helped place in hundreds of local parks across the United States.

Rob Boogmans, director of sport and fitness for a global provider of outdoor fitness products with a U.S. office based in Austin, Texas, also stressed the importance of including people like local trainers and boot camp instructors in the planning process. While they are often not considered in these stages, these individuals think about and often have good ideas about outdoor fitness. They are already working with clients in the outdoors and may even be potential partners in funding or programming these areas.

"Outdoor fitness a few years ago was simple equipment where you would go and work out with some friends, but now trainers are starting to run their business outdoors, and gyms [post-COVID] see the outdoors as an expansion opportunity," Boogmans said.

In his projects, he is seeing more collaborations between entities like local public parks and private entities such as gyms and trainers to finance these outdoor gym areas. "You actually see that gyms are doing part of the investment in the equipment, and in turn that gives them certain rights to use the equipment," Boogmans said.

He cited the example of Australia, where he said outdoor trainers in public parks are required to have a license, and the money from those licensure fees goes toward creating other outdoor training facilities. "And that actually means that the value of the license for trainers is going up, and it has all kinds of deliberate effects," Boogmans said. "Because it means that the sites get bigger and get more professional, but the cities also know there are actually experts on site. People who just want to work out can actually ask the trainers questions, so outdoor fitness is starting to professionalize."