Happy Trails!

Outdoor Fitness Adventures Equal Fun for All Ages

By Jessica Royer Ocken

What if you could encourage your community members to get moving and better their health, as well as provide a way for whole families to have fun outdoors together, without having to create, fund or construct something entirely new?

You'd be interested, wouldn't you?

Communities around the country have been reaping exactly these benefits from outdoor fitness trails. Some are just for walking and jogging (with exercise activity stations along the way), while others add hiking and biking to the mix. But almost all of them have been constructed to cooperate with existing recreation options—from playgrounds to libraries to open green space—which not only enhances their exposure and encourages their use, it makes them much easier to construct and manage because you're not starting from scratch.

But you don't have to take our word for it. Read on to hear firsthand from municipalities and design pros who are creating and enjoying outdoor fitness trails across the United States.

Add Engagement for the Community

Not long ago, the Fleetwood Park Fitness Trail project in Fleetwood, Penn., added another layer of activity to the already bustling Fleetwood Borough Park. The site included a variety of entry points, a baseball field, a band shell and a playground, and quite a few people were walking there anyway, noted project architect Meridyth Cutler, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, HOMES, O+, a registered architect with Watkins Architect LTD - Synergetics in Fleetwood, Penn. "We just provided them with better equipment," she explained. They added fitness stations for assorted exercise activities along the existing trails, as well as extending the trails to provide different loop options for various workouts.

The borough was interested in adding something for adults on the property, "which is kind of a growing phenomenon," Cutler said. Now moms bringing kids to the playground can do the trail loop and get a workout, even walking with a baby. The trails are free and open to the public, the weather cooperates for their use about six to eight months out of the year, and plans to upgrade lighting in the park will eventually extend their hours of operation.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., the Youth and Family Development department (similar to Parks and Recreation in many communities) has been investing in community health and fitness since 1990, reported Rick O'Rear, ACSM PAPHS, recreation division manager for the department. They built a fantastic indoor fitness center in Warner Park, which has been well-loved by the community for 24 years now. So when professors at the University of Tennessee came to them requesting an outdoor fitness trail, it just made sense to put that in Warner Park as well. "It's an ideal location in the central part of the city, so it serves everyone fairly," O'Rear explained.

The 2/3-mile trail meanders through the park, and though it's designed for adult fitness, there's a zoo nearby, so lots of families and kids come through as well. "Adults are mechanical; they read all the signs and instructions, but kids get on the equipment and play," O'Rear said. "They're exercising naturally, and it makes for a bonding experience."

The university is close by, so athletic teams and various groups use the trail as part of their conditioning, and personal trainers put clients through their paces there as well. "The value of placement is huge," he added. "People come to the park for one thing, then check out the others, so they feed each other, and we're definitely attracting new people."

The city of San Antonio, Texas, is on a similar health kick, which was spurred by a sizeable 2011 grant from the CDC to combat obesity, explained Sandy Jenkins, parks project manager for the city. One of the ways they used the money was installing outdoor fitness stations, and they targeted areas with existing trails, hoping to encourage people to come out and use them more actively "and lose some weight in the process," she said.

San Antonio is now home to no less than 36 different outdoor fitness trails, "and we're hoping for more," Jenkins said. "We love them, and our users love them. They've been very good for San Antonio." Mayor Julian Castro, who will soon become U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, created a coordinating Fitness in the Park program for the city, which includes lots of outdoor fitness programming and activities, and further encouraged citizens to get out and use the fitness trails. The city has also installed outdoor fitness trails and playgrounds at five branch libraries, which has been another great way to cross-pollinate activities and get bookworms moving and playing too. "In the last two years since these trails were installed, our obesity rate has gone down 2 percent," Jenkins said. "Our population is more than 1 million, so that's a big difference!"

Design Considerations

Clearly outdoor fitness trails have a bounty of benefits to offer, and here's another: They offer lots of flexibility and design options.

As you design, simply look at the trails and pathways you have available, and think about how you want them to be used. When it came time to create extensions for the existing trails in Fleetwood Borough Park, planners designed them to be large enough for two walkers or two bikers to pass each other, but not wide enough for a car, Cutler noted. Then they examined the loop as a whole and found the best spots to locate the exercise stations, both so they'd be evenly distributed and so people taking different paths through the park could pick and choose the workout they wanted. "You could customize [this sort of project] to just about any site," she said. "People may need to do multiple loops to get a good workout, or you can group stations together. Get creative with smaller sites, and avoid steep slopes so it isn't overwhelming and can be used by bikers, too."

And, as the examples cited in the previous section make clear, the location you choose can have a huge impact on your project's success. "Put a basic fitness trail in a park or around a community," O'Rear suggested. "Try to connect it with a playground for multigenerational use. We'll certainly consider adding an adult fitness component to future playgrounds, as they work really well together. It's an absolute win: families together for safety and health."

O'Rear added that you can further extend usability by selecting accessible surfacing and making sure there are sidewalks nearby. He also recommends choosing a design partner with experience, and he noted that many playground equipment manufacturers also make exercise station equipment for outdoor trails and can be a valuable resource. This also ensures that their fitness structures meet the same safety and durability standards as playground equipment.

Hailing from sunny San Antonio, Jenkins said maximizing shade is one of the best things you can do to enhance trail design. Many of those who use San Antonio's trails do so in the morning, before the heat of the day, but better shade would make exercising outdoors more appealing—and perhaps for longer periods of time. She also suggests grouping fitness stations together in some cases, rather than spreading them along the trail. This changes up the workout a little, as people can run, walk or bike a lap, then do a station or two, and alternate for as long as they need to.

Funding Options

Another great thing about outdoor fitness trails? The opportunities they present for collaboration and bringing people together extend to funding as well. Grants for public health or public art may be possibilities, as noted previously, and there's also the U.S. government's Federal Recreational Trails program (visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/recreational_trails/ for details).

There may also be assorted funding options within your own area. Friends of the Fleetwood Playground, a local group, had a hand in financing the Fleetwood Fitness Trail project, and by the time all was said and done, different groups in the community—from Lions to Rotarians to Optimists—had sponsored each of the 10 fitness stations along the way. Not only did they donate money for the equipment, they provided volunteers to help with installing it, Cutler reported.

Chattanooga's Warner Park fitness trail was also a grand collaboration, as University of Tennessee professors not only provided impetus for the project, they offered research and exercise science expertise to enhance the design, and secured a donation of fitness equipment. In return, the city installed and now maintains the trail and its stations.

So don't be afraid to reach out and explore your options. Fitness features designed to be used by a variety of visitors in a variety of ways also means a variety of possibilities for financing.

Programming Potential

As you may have noticed, the majority of those consulted for this article had a fairly laissez faire attitude about their community's outdoor fitness trails: They're free, they're self-service, and they're open anytime someone wants to use them. In some cases, not needing a ton of staff or programming to keep something going can be a huge boon. But that's not to say that an outdoor fitness trail leaves no possibility for programming if it turns out that's something you want or need.

"There's a great response to self-guided recreation in mountain biking, but one challenge recreation managers deal with is how to generate revenue," noted Judd De Vall, principal at Alpine Bike Parks, a design/build contractor specializing in bike parks and trails, based in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. "And one thing I look at as a parent of a 5- and 7-year-old—how do I keep them engaged while I'm working?"

Think about it from a skiing perspective, he suggests. "One of the best ways to retain people [in a sport or activity] is to get them started in the right way," he said. Some basic knowledge of proper technique reduces injuries and increases usership, which is why ski slopes offer lessons. This philosophy can apply to trails intended for biking and hiking, as well as those equipped with fitness stations.

Even if your outdoor fitness trail is free and open to the public, you could advertise having an expert there for a guided group class (and a minimal fee) at a specific time during the week. This may attract new users and help them feel comfortable, or reinvigorate those who have been using the facility on their own for a while.

And if bicycles can be used on your trails, a bit of programming may earn you access to a whole new generation of tiny riders who started on balance bikes as toddlers and are now ready for some outdoor adventures, noted De Vall.

Finally, whether or not you offer any formal classes or camps on your outdoor trails, consider offering the community some general information about how to use them. O'Rear is preparing a presentation on fall prevention and balance training for older adults, which will include tips on how the fitness trails can be used to sharpen these skills. And San Antonio is preparing to roll out a trail safety program for multi-use trails where conflicts could occur between bikers, hikers, and walkers or joggers. Public education about rules and guidelines helps everyone get along and stay safe.

"The return on investment is great," O'Rear said. "We're all at some level concerned about the health of our community and healthcare costs, so [outdoor fitness trails are] a no-brainer to provide and encourage people to get outside and be healthy."

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