Feature Article - September 2022
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Fitness al Fresco

Ideas for Adding—or Expanding—Outdoor Exercise Opportunities

By Emily Tipping

It'll be some time before we fully understand just how much the coronavirus pandemic upended our daily lives and habits. It changed the way many of us play and rest, and it changed the way many of us work and work out. Looking for an outlet—for movement, for socializing and for just plain getting away from the grind as it moved into our homes and made itself comfortable—many of us went outside.

Luckily, many folks found an entire infrastructure of parks, trails and equipment waiting to accommodate their needs. But others—especially those looking to replace indoor gym workouts with something similar, or those living in areas that lack access to outdoor exercise opportunities—may have been left wanting.

Bringing outdoor fitness to the pandemic-weary public—helping those seeking a workout to escape potential exposure to illness—has been a laudable goal over the past few years, but it's just the most recent addition to a long list of reasons why you should consider adding outdoor fitness, or expanding your existing options.

"Before the pandemic even began, communities were looking at alternatives to indoor gyms, and park planners began creating programming for safe outdoor fitness classes," said Scott Roschi, creative director at a Delano, Minn.-based manufacturer of playground and park equipment, including outdoor exercise equipment. "Parks are the great equalizer, and creating spaces for the community to connect is more important than ever."

"We know through research and practice that physical exercise is a huge factor in overall health, both physically and emotionally," said Stephanie Devine, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for a manufacturer of park and outdoor fitness equipment based in Red Bud, Ill. "Exercising outdoors allows people to work out freely, at their own pace, and provides the ability to physically distance when appropriate. We have seen a rise in outdoor fitness trends in the past decade, but we have seen a surge since COVID-19. Communities understand the importance of providing healthy options and overcoming obstacles with limited indoor classes."

Simply put, we all need to move our bodies in order to live well, said Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Orange County, Calif., but there are many obstacles in the way. Time, budget constraints, and a dearth of self-confidence, support and encouragement can all make it difficult for folks to add healthy movement to their lives. "Moreover," she added, "some demographics tend to exercise less than others, and it's important that we provide easily accessed amenities to encourage them to get moving."

Seniors are particularly at risk, Abel said, with a CDC study finding that nearly three in 10 (28%) of adults 50 years of age and older were physically inactive. What's more, "People with disabilities are 53% more likely to be overweight than adults without a disability, according to the Journal of Disability Policy Studies," she added. "A simple reason for this is that they simply don't have places to exercise that are convenient and that will meet their needs. Outdoor fitness zones can be part of the solution."

Indeed, Sarah Lisiecki, communications and education manager for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment, playground equipment and more, said that outdoor fitness areas within communities help people stay active while bringing equity and access to exercise. "There are a variety of options that support different exercise experiences, but all have one thing in common—getting people moving outside together."

"We've seen firsthand how adding outdoor fitness spaces to a park or recreation area activates that space and attracts adults of all ages. And studies show people who exercise outdoors exercise more frequently and for more extended periods" explained Jon Walker, product manager for outdoor fitness products at a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of playground, park and outdoor fitness equipment.

"For parks, it's a great way to provide an effective exercise experience without barriers to entry, like a costly gym membership," he added. "For colleges and universities, there is evidence that regular outdoor physical activity can reduce stress and anxiety and help reverse the alarming trend of mental health issues among college students."

"Even a relatively small amount of time devoted to exercise can bring benefits, and when located in areas that are already highly frequented such as public parks, outdoor fitness areas make exercise easier to fit into busy schedules," Abel said. "Parents who are taking their kids to the park with outdoor fitness equipment there can exercise without adding more to their schedules. Others can go in the morning or on the way home from work."

She added the outdoor fitness equipment is generally intuitive to use, making it less intimidating for new exercisers and others whose self-confidence is lacking. "For those who lack support, it's easy to bring friends and family members to the fitness zone to join them for workouts, regardless of whether they have gym memberships. Outdoor gyms can even attract people to the park or facility, as they provide ways for teens and adults of all ages to get active. Outdoor gyms do not require staff, and there are no overhead costs involved. In short, outdoor fitness areas can be great resources for community health and positive spaces to bring people together."

"If better community health and quality of life is your goal, investing in outdoor fitness spaces is a proven way to make a positive and long-lasting impact," Walker concluded.