Building Healthier Communities

The Ins and Outs of Outdoor Fitness Areas

By Dave Ramont

No one disputes how beneficial regular exercise is for mind and body, yet we all know there's a lot of shiny new exercise equipment out there moonlighting as clothes racks and doorstops. It's also widely understood that spending time outdoors offers many physical and mental benefits. So it only makes sense that outdoor fitness parks are becoming more popular every day. These parks—which are generally free to the public—feature resistance-based exercise machines focusing on strength training, cardio, balance and agility, and flexibility.

Fred Wiechmann, vice president of marketing and product development at a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of play equipment, outdoor fitness equipment and related products, points to studies showing that people who exercise outdoors tend to exercise more frequently and for longer periods of time. "Moreover, outdoor fitness parks remove barriers that sometimes prevent people from participating in group exercise or personal fitness activities such as gym memberships. At times, we've seen community groups and recreation centers holding fitness classes and social meet-ups at our parks," he said.

Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), echoes how popular the parks have become, saying that they cross a broad demographic. "All the genders and age groups tend to work out together, so it becomes a very positive user experience and can generate a whole new group coming to your park."

Cost-Efficient for Owners AND Exercisers

Attracting new patrons is just one perk for communities and parks; affordability is also a tempting incentive. "Adding a fitness park is quick and inexpensive compared to a large masterplan," said Sam Mendelsohn, president and CEO of an Orange County, Calif.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment. "It's much easier to find a donor for a $100,000 project rather than raising funds for a minimum $5 million masterplan, which requires years of preparation and approval. Adding an outdoor fitness park to a local green area is a matter of a few short months, and the community can use it shortly after, allowing the donor to see their donation put to good use right away." (Their typical installation takes about one to two weeks.)

Adding a fitness park is quick and inexpensive compared to a large masterplan.

Benepe agrees, adding that Fitness Zones are great because they're small and, as park and playground facilities go, very inexpensive—going in quickly and providing the best bang for the buck in terms of exercise. He cites the example of how—in the space of a tennis court or smaller—you can install up to eight or 10 exercise stations, each one accommodating two to four users. "So you can have 30 or more users in the same space that two or four people might play tennis, and it costs less than putting in a tennis court or basketball court." He called it an "express train to better public health at a very low cost."

Centennial Park in Tinley Park, Ill., contains a configuration of trails adding up to almost two miles. Close by, a new playground was built and for several years the old playground site sat empty. Park visitors were looking for more exercise opportunities outdoors, so a fitness park was installed on the former playground site in 2012.

John Curran, director of Parks and Recreation, said they looked at placing the equipment throughout the path, but they found that people would rather work out all at once—walk the path and then work out, or vice versa. So they decided to put the equipment in one area. The equipment manufacturer helped with selection and design, and a company that normally installs playgrounds did the installation. The park ultimately purchased 10 machines, including a vertical press, elliptical machine, rowing machine and stationary bike. Two of the machines are wheelchair accessible.

Curran said that people flocked to the park right away, regardless of whether they could afford fitness centers or not, but that one man did approach him to say that he'd recently lost his job and could no longer afford a health club membership, so the fitness park was greatly appreciated.

Exercise for All

TPL is a nonprofit whose vision is to have a park within a 10-minute walk of everyone in America's cities. They also strive to provide opportunities for people to be healthy and fit, and realize that finding a place to exercise can be challenging for many. So for the past six years, they've been installing Fitness Zones around the country—approximately 100 so far.

"We tend to focus on low-income, underserved areas where you have a combination of both challenging health outcomes and a need for more low-cost or free facilities, and these are free," Benepe said.

Benepe explained that in some cases TPL does the installation using contractors they've procured, while in other cases they partner with local parks agencies that do the installation. "Classically, we'll work in partnership with a park agency, and we'll raise some of the funding and usually match with some public funding. If necessary, we'll do the procurements, which is what we do in places where we have a big program going on, say Los Angeles or Miami."

He said that prices can range from $50,000 to $60,000 for a simple, small installation to much more for a grander installation with many forms of exercise equipment and other amenities like shade structures, bike racks, benches, trash receptacles or added landscaping. But he pointed out that "Even if you have a lot of bells and whistles, it's still a quarter of the price of a small, one-acre playground."

Sometimes TPL combines Fitness Zones and playgrounds, putting the fitness equipment next to the playground so adults can work out while watching their children play. Plus, "The kids can play and watch the grownups work out, and that serves an important function because the adults are modeling an exercise habit," Benepe said.

Wiechmann agreed, adding, "Parents like the convenience of exercising while their children are playing."

Curran mentioned that in his district, they're putting in a new playground and are going to add three exercise machines next to it to see if there might be parents bringing their kids to the playground who might want to do some exercise themselves.

In Southern Florida, the Broward County Parks and Recreation Division teamed up with Memorial Healthcare Systems to open two wheelchair-accessible outdoor fitness parks. The first, located in T.Y. Park in Hollywood, opened in December 2013. The second opened in December 2015 and sits inside Brian Piccolo Sports Park (BP) in Cooper City. Both parks have a roughly two-mile exercise loop, and the fitness parks are situated alongside the paths. Memorial had been looking for an appropriate way to celebrate its 60th anniversary and give back to the community, and the fitness parks were just the solution. They're now looking at installing fitness areas in four other county parks.

T.Y. Park has a Walking Club with more than 2,500 registered walkers. Senior Park Manager Margie Grimes said their fitness-minded patrons love the equipment and their attendance numbers on weekdays in the morning and evening has increased greatly because of it. "We've seen a tremendous increase in personal trainers and meet-up groups coming here to work out."

Will Regalado, senior park manager at BP, said that his patrons also tend to use the fitness equipment mostly in the mornings and late afternoons/early evenings. He pointed out that BP is the only county park solely dedicated to athletics. "The park has always been a haven for fitness-minded individuals, and now those same patrons can incorporate the fitness areas into their routines."

The parks purchased their equipment from the same manufacturer, who helped with the initial layouts and also assisted in recommending the installation company or hiring a contractor to pour the concrete slab. Both parks selected 12 machines, four of which are wheelchair-accessible. And while Grimes and Regalado have both noticed all machines being used equally, Grimes mentioned that everyone seems to want to try the cardio stepper first. And, according to Regalado, BP plans to add a canopy, water fountain, mister and some lighting so the equipment can be used in the evening.

Take the Challenge

For those who prefer their workout to have a more playful or competitive twist, manufacturers have recently introduced a new take on the classic obstacle course. These challenge and obstacle courses are a perfect choice for multigenerational fitness as family and friends can compete against one another, testing their speed and agility.

Challenge and obstacle courses are a perfect choice for multigenerational fitness as family and friends can compete against one another, testing their speed and agility.

Wiechmann said that the fastest growing segment of outdoor recreation is obstacle courses, mud runs and adventure races. Therefore, challenge courses are popular because the obstacles look like events that people have seen on television, and timing systems make it easy for them to see how well they performed. Plus, an app is available that makes it fun to compare their time with their friends.

"We see friends and family members arrive at a challenge course and stay for hours, running the course or the 40-yard dash, trying to improve upon their time or challenging one another over and over again. And we see the same groups of people coming back day after day, week after week. It truly is a place where people of all fitness levels and ages meet, compete and repeat," he explained.

Often, challenge courses are installed in an area with other outdoor fitness equipment or close to playgrounds. Different models are available depending on available space and the age of users, whether 13 and up or younger kids ages 5 to 12.

Wiechmann said that elementary schools like the courses because they provide an exciting way for kids to be active outdoors. And at middle schools or K-8 schools, they provide a fun outdoor activity for older students who have outgrown traditional playgrounds. "Some of our school customers use the course as part of their sports or physical education training," he added.

Play 60 is the National Football League's campaign to encourage kids to be active for at least 60 minutes a day to reverse the trend of childhood obesity. And some NFL teams are using challenge courses as part of their Play 60 efforts in their respective communities. In Charlotte, N.C., the Carolina Panthers have been part of four of these projects—one at Hornet's Nest Park and three at local schools. In Richmond, Va., the Washington Redskins added a course to Redskins Park and another at a local school.

Keeping Up With Upkeep

So what about maintenance—how does outdoor fitness equipment hold up once it's installed, and how much upkeep is required?

Wiechmann said his company's outdoor fitness and obstacle course products are durable and weather-resistant, requiring routine maintenance based on use, which includes bolt tightening and surfacing inspections. The bearings are self-lubricating.

Outdoor fitness and obstacle course products are durable and weather-resistant, requiring routine maintenance based on use.

Mendelsohn added that his company's outdoor fitness products require little to no maintenance at all.

Down in Florida, Grimes said that the manufacturer left them with a toolkit and touch-up paint, and has replaced any items broken due to misuse without cost or hassle. Beyond that, she said upkeep has been minimal. "Paint wears off of the bars where hands hold on to them. Rust will appear in small spots, steel wool and touch-up paint takes care of it. Once in a while a hand grip needs to be replaced. The equipment in general needs to be lubed monthly and we pressure-clean the slab and equipment monthly. The equipment is very sturdy and holds up well to heavy usage."

She said the only problem has been children misusing the equipment and playing on it as if it were a playground. The manufacturer recommends users be 14 or older, and signs are posted. But kids still play on the equipment, even as their parents watch, and so park personnel have to remain consistent in enforcing the age limit.

Curran has also seen this problem, with adults occasionally complaining that they want to work out but kids are playing on the equipment. Other than that, he also said the machines have held up very well. "We do have some repairs—usually that's from somebody who doesn't use it correctly—but it's been very limited in the sense of how much use it gets. We've been real happy with it." Being in Illinois, Curran also pointed out that he sees patrons using the equipment in winter, as long as it's not covered in snow. "They might go there for 15 or 20 minutes before they go into their jog."

Par for the Course

The first official fitness trail or parcourse can be traced back to 1968 in Zurich, Switzerland. From there, the trend spread to other parts of Europe and the United States by the early 1970s. The paths were "equipped with obstacles or stations distributed along their length for exercising the human body to promote good health." Sometimes the obstacles consisted of natural features including climbable rocks, trees and river embankments. Other times they featured manufactured products like stepping posts, chin-up bars and sit-up benches.

TPL's Benepe said they're still seeing parcourses where you have exercise stations along a trail, which are popular with hikers, bikers and joggers. "In a number of cases we've installed Fitness Zones where the trail begins and ends, so people can do a loop and do some of the stations that involve things like sit-ups and chin-ups and then they can end with a full workout, so they can do some weight-bearing exercise at the end of their cardio workout."

Recently, TPL opened its first green-infrastructure installation in Miami, the first of six Fitness Zones to be funded through a grant from TD Bank. It features rain gardens, newly-planted trees, light-colored surfaces, and permeable pavement to help mitigate flooding, increase water quality, improve air quality and reduce surface temperatures.

Mendelsohn explained how outdoor fitness parks are spreading to alternative venues—senior centers, military bases, schools, hospitals, etc.—and how new, innovative equipment is being made available all the time. He pointed to his company's newly-designed leg press, which is capable of accommodating four people, allowing "four strangers to exercise comfortably without any intimidation, making it a fantastic social activity." In fact, he calls the fitness parks "inclusive, social activity centers," pointing out that they serve an "exceptionally wide demographic including both able and disabled members of the community."

Wiechmann shares this sentiment, adding that "It's exciting to see how outdoor fitness brings together different members of a community, regardless of their age race or socioeconomic status. Outdoor fitness doesn't just make people stronger, it makes communities stronger."



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