Take It Outside
Bringing Indoor Fitness Outdoors

By Tom Casey

While there's nothing new about comprehensive fitness equipment, such as ellipticals and arm-presses, there is something new about where you can use them—outside! Long past are the days of simple pushup and sit-up stations traditionally found on fitness trails. Today's outdoor fitness equipment can be found in a wide variety of settings, and in addition to fitness, offers tremendous social and multi-generational wellness benefits.

First-Time Fitness

Despite seemingly endless news stories dealing with obesity, sedentary lifestyles and general health issues, only 10 percent of the population actually uses indoor fitness centers. While reasons include busy lifestyles or lack of funds for membership, the biggest hurdle for many is simply intimidation. The thought of working out next to somebody more physically advanced is daunting enough for people to disregard taking that first step to a healthier lifestyle.

Today's outdoor fitness equipment gives people comparable fitness benefits, at their own pace, on their own schedule and with no dues requirements. More importantly, as the majority of users are part of that 90 percent not using indoor fitness centers, outdoor equipment actually fosters "First Time Fitness" to those who otherwise would not have the time, inclination or financial resources to take advantage of indoor rec centers and health clubs.

While not designed to take the place of fitness benefits that can only be derived from the equipment and training at indoor centers, outdoor equipment focuses more on general flexibility, cardio and muscle strengthening. Acting as "first-time fitness magnets," outdoor fitness equipment helps introduce and engage the population in healthy lifestyle habits.

It's not unusual to see colorful playgrounds and site amenities in parks and other public spaces. Outdoor fitness equipment not only offers new amenity options, but also provides a strong social component in bringing people from all demographics together under the umbrella of fun and fitness.

A recent visit to an outdoor fitness zone in a Los Angeles public park included more than a dozen adults ranging in ages from late 20s to early 70s. Moms with kids in strollers parked next to arm-press machines, 60-year-olds chatting with 30-year-olds as they operated multi-user leg-press machines, passersby out for a walk in the park stopping to look at (and try out) the equipment.

In most cases these people would not be considered physically "fit" from any traditional definition. In addition to the fitness benefits derived from using the equipment, more important was their engaging in a comprehensive exercise activity—maybe for the first time in their lives—giving them an improved sense of self-confidence and self-image.

The Science

In addition to traditional benefits gained from fitness equipment usage, outdoor exercise offers nutritional and mental health benefits as well. Sunshine and fresh air helps address osteoporosis and vitamin D deficiencies, with normal levels of vitamin D being attained by simply being in sunlight for as little as 10 minutes a few times a week. Mental health studies have long touted the decreased tension and depression levels that come simply from being outside, with more current studies showing improvement in mood and sense of well-being. Studies specific to outdoor exercise suggest that in addition to the air being cleaner than indoors, the variety of scenery helps break the tedium of an indoor facility workout.

Will It Last?

It's difficult to imagine that bringing indoor fitness equipment outside wouldn't bring with it a slew of maintenance issues, and rightly so. The issue of equipment functionality and longevity is first on the minds of potential customers and users alike. While outdoor fitness equipment has proven itself in a variety of climates internationally throughout Asia and Europe over the past 10 years, it is still a relatively new premise to many in North America.

Using similar design elements and materials found on other outdoor recreation equipment, such as playgrounds and bicycles, today's outdoor fitness equipment can be found standing up to climate conditions as hot as Arizona and as cold as Alaska. From a durability standpoint, just as with playground and court equipment, manufacturers have been required to take into design consideration not only the daily use of the equipment, but also mis-use (vandalism), as the equipment is usually located outside in unsupervised areas.

Like any recreation equipment purchase, there is a wide range of quality levels and price points. Customers should research not only the supplier's ability, but more importantly their history of testing, quality control and addressing problems in the field.

Coexisting With Indoor Fitness

"I just built a multi-million-dollar dues-paying community rec center, and we have several private health clubs in the area. Why in the world would I want to offer free community fitness?"

Although fully appreciating the premise of "first time fitness" and doing something genuinely good for the community at large, that comment from a tenured municipal recreation professional is echoed by many when first considering outdoor fitness equipment.

While at first glance indoor fitness centers and outdoor fitness zones might seem at odds, they actually work in perfect harmony and help promote fitness activities in general. In addition to stark differences in adjustability, electronics, etc., found on indoor equipment vs. the more general functionality found on similar outdoor equipment, a key consideration is that the people using outdoor equipment are usually not the same people visiting indoor fitness centers. Promoting elements such as muscle-strengthening vs. muscle-building, and flexibility vs. toning, today's outdoor fitness equipment serves to introduce people to exercise and can actually act as a gateway to indoor fitness.

Economics & Applications

With today's economic realities finding many recreation project purchases being put on the back burner, and outdoor fitness clusters typically costing less than $15,000, customers can provide huge community impact for a fraction of the cost of many outdoor amenity projects.

Public customers such as parks, municipalities and other tax-supported entities have the additional bonus of tapping into an ocean of public and private grants and funding sources that deal specifically with promoting health and wellness. The relatively small project price allows placement of several fitness clusters throughout any given town, providing free fitness to an entire community.

Residents of housing authorities, challenged with socio-economic realities, rarely have the resources or time to visit indoor facilities. These residents especially appreciate the wellness benefits of outdoor fitness equipment. Even the smallest of fitness clusters placed in a common area provide health benefits, serve as multi-generational healthy lifestyle examples, and bring the community together through fun and light exercise.

Corporations understand that healthy employees are happier and more productive. Even companies with indoor fitness centers are limited to the reality of less than 10 percent of their employees actually using the facility, and default to simply suggesting employees put on their sneakers and walk at lunchtime. Taking just a couple of minutes to loosen tense muscles while burning stress, outdoor equipment attracts more users, and sends employees back to work relaxed and energized.

Other private customers such as apartment/housing developments and hotels/resorts with indoor fitness facilities know that the more engaging their amenities, the more attractive their property and the more revenue they can generate.

A Variety of Equipment Types

Cross-country skiers, chest and leg presses, stair-steppers, rowers and even accessible products—today's outdoor fitness equipment is similar to its indoor cousins. One notable advantage is the wide variety of multi-user models that allow two, three and even four users simultaneously on one machine, promoting the inherent social interaction benefit of the outdoor fitness category.

From a compliance standpoint, ASTM standards specific to outdoor fitness equipment were initiated in 2011, with published guidelines anticipated in 2013. Just as ASTM and subsequently IPEMA did for playground equipment, the new guidelines will offer purchasers a confidence level that uniform standards of functionality and safety have been addressed by any given supplier.

Moving Forward

With this new generation of outdoor fitness equipment only now starting to actively grow in parks and public and private entities, it's not a far leap to envision the category becoming a foundational wellness and fitness option.

More than simply offering the latest fad in recreation, the outdoor fitness equipment category delivers the unique social, health and wellness premise of making comprehensive fitness equipment available to all people, regardless of fitness level or economic standing, to use on their own time and in their own fashion, all outside in the fresh air, where they work, where they live and where they play.


Tom Casey is a strategic consultant to recreation industry equipment manufacturers and suppliers worldwide, and principal at the Tom Casey Group. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.