Take It Outside

Outdoor Fitness Areas Brings Fitness to All

By Kelli Ra Anderson

It is a form of recreation whose time has come. Outdoor fitness exercise areas in public parks are growing fast, and for good reason. Municipalities and recreation departments love them because they are incredibly effective in engaging pubic fitness and because they are very affordable. (In fact, they are about the most cost-effective form of recreation money can buy in cost per energy unit burned—an estimated 10 cents per person, compared to $1.50 per person for traditional spaces like tennis courts).

And the public loves them because they're fun, communal, intergenerational, effective and best of all—they're free. What's not to love?

Of course, outdoor fitness and fitness equipment is nothing new. Decades ago communities saw the installation of fitness stations along running courses with a variety of stationary bars and beams intended to enhance the running experience. The predecessors of today's outdoor fitness craze, however, have virtually disappeared from the recreation landscape. The difference between then and now? A broader vision of function and appeal—to provide a wide spectrum of fitness opportunity for all ages and abilities.

Thanks to visionaries like Adrian Benepe (former commissioner of New York City's park service, and current vice president and director of city park development for the Trust for Public Land), outdoor fitness gyms outfitted with durable exercise equipment are literally mushrooming around the world. From Alaska and Canada to Nevada and the Middle East, outdoor gyms—copywrited as "Fitness Zones" by the Trust, a national nonprofit land conservation organization—are found in all kinds of climates and used by a variety of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic demographics.

To date, about 100 Fitness Zones have been created in public parks around the country, where the Trust has helped communities partner with public agencies, cities and county governments to put together packages with private and public funding.

Costs range from $50,000 to $200,000 by some estimates, depending on the number of pieces of equipment, but are often shared by multiple groups. The Outdoor Fitness Park in Newark, Ohio, for example, a park used around the year and situated near a busy bike path and dorms of Ohio State University and Central Ohio Technical College campus, was made possible by a community partnership between the City of Newark, the Patricia R. and Herbert J. Murphy Foundation and the Licking County Foundation.

Equipment Options

The appeal for users is also the ever-evolving designs of exercise apparatus.

"No more than five to six years ago, they started making fitness equipment that has cardio and weight-bearing exercise equipment durable enough to handle the rigors of weather and repeated uses and misuses," said Benepe about a key reformation in the outdoor exercise movement that has everything from lower-maintenance traditional stationary forms of equipment like sit-up benches or push up bars, to moving elements that mimic indoor equipment like ellipticals, recumbent bikes and rowing machines.

Outdoor fitness exercise areas in public parks are growing fast, and for good reason.

The latter come in many designs and use a variety of mechanisms like enclosed rubber or magnets and even hydraulic applications to create adjustable resistance designs that use a person's body weight for more personalized workouts to cater to all ages and abilities, including wheelchair-accessible designs.

The four-season durability of these designs shouldn't come as a surprise given the playground equipment industry's experience with such material as powder coatings, graffiti-resistant materials and safety surfaces. According to Keith Rattay, assistant city manager and director of public service in Mission Viejo, Calif., it's important to think of outdoor gyms as not dissimilar to playground equipment. "It's exactly like playground equipment in maintenance—very similar in that regard," he explained. "The same expectation of a playground is what you would have in a workout environment like that." And like playgrounds, the public enjoys them free of cost.

Free and Clear

"The beauty is with a very small piece of land for a very low price, you get a free outdoor gym focused on needy neighborhoods where people are poor and don't have options for exercise with a surprisingly diverse demographic that uses them, from teens to grandparents," Benepe explained about one of Fitness Zone's most appealing applications.

After attending a session on outdoor fitness spaces at the National Recreation and Park Association conference in Atlanta in 2011, John Curran, director of parks and recreation of Tinley Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, was inspired to bring the idea to his community. In July of 2012 they opened an outdoor fitness gym in their preexisting Centennial Park next to a playground and well-used walking path. "We've just had a fantastic response from people," he said of the 10-piece equipment space.

"One day I was visiting the park and a guy working out asked me if I was with the park district," Curran recalled of one notable moment. "He said to me, 'I gotta tell you, I lost my job and can't afford a fitness membership right now. I'm here every day and I want to thank you.' It was great to hear that we're meeting the need and not just people who can't afford it but people who want to work outdoors."

Others, too, have remarkable stories about its community-building impact in crime-prone neighborhoods where seniors and teens find themselves coming together to exercise, forging new relationships and a stronger sense of community and pride of place. Families, too, often separated by interests and activity, find themselves coming together in a common purpose or space, multi-tasking kid-play with parent and grandparent workouts.

Let's Get Physical

From well-to-do communities known for fitness zeal like Orange County, Calif., to regular suburbs and smaller towns, rich and poor, outdoor fitness areas are finding favor with many kinds of people for many purposes, but all with one common trait: People simply enjoy the idea and experience of working out in nature.

Research shows that outdoor gyms fulfill our basic need to connect with nature in a time when digital distractions and busy lifestyles tend to crowd out these types of experiences. It only stands to reason, then, that placing these areas near scenic landscapes, by trees, water or embedding in the landscaping, adds to the overall experience.

Although a relatively new phenomenon with studies under way to quantify the impact they are having in the fight against obesity and the goal to enhance the longevity and quality of life, anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest it is a fitness model already making its mark.

"Public experts tell us don't bother trying to prove people are getting healthier—prove equipment is being used and we'll draw the correlation," Benepe affirmed. "There is no doubt about that. The real empirical evidence is that people who use parks get healthier. Just tell us people are running, working out or playing tennis, and we'll assume the rest."

Location, Location, Location

The trick, however, is to know where these spaces will be most visible and how to design them for maximum impact for the unique needs of each community.

Perhaps more than any other kind of outdoor fitness program, location is the number one predictor of success. Whereas many other kinds of athletic fields or trails are destination spaces in and of themselves, outdoor gyms find their success riding on the coattails of athletic activity already in progress.

"It's paramount that a trail is located on a trail the community uses and that's why it's successful," Rattay said about the success of their outdoor space in Mission Viejo located near a walking trail and a senior center. "You need a place where a lot of people are around."

Ideally located by trails for walking, jogging or biking, outdoor gyms are a great accompaniment for people already in a fitness mindset looking for additional ways to stay fit and enjoy the outdoors. They are also frequently positioned near playgrounds to provide caregivers and family members of all ages a chance to do something productive with time ordinarily spent just sitting.

Other recommendations include placing them near existing parking areas for convenient access, and/or near athletic fields where existing amenities like restrooms, water fountains and trash receptacles are already in place and ready to be shared. And like any recreation area, good seating and shade are a must, provided either by nearby trees or shade structures to keep exercisers in the cool and able to rest between reps or while waiting a turn to use the next apparatus.

Unique amenities, however, can include providing hand sanitizers to use before and after equipment use, which was specifically requested by users in Mission Viejo. Other parks, however, discovered that with a plethora of bikers using nearby trails, many already had their own towels and wipes so no such amenity was required, while bike racks were an absolute must. It always depends on the needs of each demographic.

Another benefit to placing these near already frequented and popular areas is the convenience of a shared location for the use of snow removal equipment, safety inspections and routine maintenance checks. By and large, these areas are usually placed together in one space, not spread out over a wide area.

"By clustering the exercise equipment in one location, groups of people using the gym together is a great way to help reinforce the social aspect of exercising while also clustering it and providing accessibility is key to the success of our gym," said James Couillard, acting director of Marion County Parks and Recreation Department in Marion County, Fla., noting the importance of providing shade. "We chose our site wisely, as the early morning and evening exercisers get the added benefit of being in the shade, something that is important here in Florida."

While most prefer to arrange their spaces like a gym, placing equipment according to body workout (core, upper body, and lower; or aerobic, strength, balance/flexibility and muscle-building), those addressing the needs of a predominant power-walking demographic find that placing them at half-mile intervals along a fitness trail allows power walkers to stop to do an intense exercise for 30 seconds to spike their heart rates before continuing on the trail to the next site. Knowing your users is essential to choosing the kinds of equipment and their optimum layouts.

To that end, Couillard strongly recommends using a fitness professional to help make the most intelligent choices. Some manufacturing companies even provide best practices manuals for that very reason. In every case, equipment needs to be chosen according to the positive health benefits to users that will actually get used and that aren't too complicated to inhibit use.

Signage and some form of instruction (classes or videos available on smart phones) are an important ingredient for success. While some forms of equipment are familiar to regular gym attenders and need little explanation, others less familiar with equipment will benefit from instruction about good position and posture for each apparatus, as well as information about the optimum number of reps.

Many other kinds of athletic fields or trails are destination spaces in and of themselves, outdoor gyms find their success riding on the coattails of athletic activity already in progress.

An early adopter of the outdoor fitness area, Mission Viejo developed online instruction videos that have been well received by users at their park, while some have decided to provide classes. "In May we are going to start education instructor classes for people after hours," said Brittany Bruner, fitness coordinator for risk and benefit services with the Marion County Board of County Commissioners in Ocala, Fla.

Additionally, signage is also necessary to explain the rules, especially to discourage underage users when a fitness area has been placed near a playground. "Kids are inquisitive so their first instinct is to go try the exercise equipment that is typically not suited for 7- or 8-year-olds," Couillard warned. Signage posting the rules can put a stop to that.

Attracting people to these areas is seldom a problem—it's getting enough parks to satisfy the growing demand. In the case of an outdoor gym in Siloam Springs, Ark., last year, built on donated land and with the help of a $37,000 grant, the City and John Brown Springs University, they are already considering the possibility of expanding the park's success to the other side of town. "We wanted something that would remove the barriers where anyone would want to work out and the outdoor gym is what we came up with," said Amy Martin of their successful park and its ADA equipment.

Newark, Ohio, is already moving forward. "Due to the overwhelming success of the outdoor fitness area, the Newark Parks Department is already looking at other locations within our city parks where we can install other outdoor fitness stations," said Chuck Jackson, service director of parks and recreation in special events. "The thing that we have learned as a department is the more we create opportunities for our citizens to get outside and enjoy nature, the quality of life for everyone is improved."

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