Everyone's Gym

Outdoor Fitness Reaches All Ages, Abilities

By Joseph Bush

When your town grows from 4,000 people to nearly 50,000 in 30 years, all demographics of the population contribute to the boom.

Apex, N.C., is a suburb of Raleigh, and its younger families have attracted grandparents, according to John Brown, the town's parks and recreation director. All of them want to be active and have made that clear with votes authorizing higher taxes for recreation.

"They expect a lot of amenities and don't mind paying for them," Brown said. "We can't keep up with it."

The mix of young and old has something in common: The town with 10 miles of public greenway and 500 acres of parkland wants both groups to get fit outdoors more often.


Brown wants to combat youth obesity, and his department armed itself in 2017 with an outdoor course designed and built by a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based recreation and play equipment manufacturer and its partner based in Morrisville, N.C. Several equipment-based obstacles involving climbing, balancing, rotating and combinations of them all are connected by short sprints. A 25-yard sprinting area off to the side allows users to run obstacle-free.

The course reflects the nation's fascination with two recreational trends: outdoor obstacle races and American Ninja Warrior-type activities. It's fitness as a series of varied activities meant to be done consecutively from a start to a finish. And while research on the benefits of outdoor fitness equipment use specifically is limited, the benefits of any exercise are well established, and being outside adds the important element of the sun's contribution to our bodies producing vitamin D.

Designed for kids age 13 and above, the Apex course is touted on the department's website as the first of its kind in the country. The same site says that though the course was meant for teens, the department intends to program with it for all ages and abilities.

"Outdoor fitness and recreation is a big deal for us," Brown said. "Our senior population is very active and wants things to do outdoors as well as indoors."

So important is that population to Apex and Brown that the department applied for and won a grant from AARP, formerly known as American Association of Retired Persons, to purchase outdoor fitness equipment specifically for use by seniors.

Brown said the equipment provider identified the site, which will include wheelchair-accessible equipment that offers a little less resistance. They also helped with the site layout and the quote for the approximately $50,000 project. The equipment will be in the middle of an upcoming $34 million park effort, next to a large playground.

"They could go out with their grandkids, and while the kids are playing on the playground or soccer fields, they could use the fitness equipment," Brown said.

Today's seniors remember the original outdoor fitness areas and equipment—no, not trees, but parcourse or fitness trails. The first was a 1968 Swiss invention: a walking or jogging path on the side of which were intermittent pieces of resistance or body weight resistance equipment to work different parts of the body.

Those courses, still found today if they've been well maintained, didn't take into account different ages or abilities, and exercise science regardless of age or ability has advanced in the 50 years since, said Allison Abel, director of marketing for an Anaheim, Calif.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment.

"Functional fitness is currently a trend, and the outdoor fitness industry has responded by making the experience available in parks, along trails and in other outdoor settings," Abel said. "Exciting fitness rigs similar to those found in indoor gyms, with features such as cannonball pull-ups and other advanced exercises, are now available for the outdoor space.

"There are also units featuring attachment points for suspension trainers, facilitating a nearly innumerable array of exercises. In some parks, even kickboxing stations have found their way into the outdoor gyms. These new units do an excellent job of providing workouts."

Basically, anything you can do indoors you can do outside, but Abel said planning is crucial when considering outdoor fitness areas and equipment, not only because of different ages but also because of varying fitness levels. For instance, some equipment features adjustable-resistance mechanisms, which can tailor the workout to each user's ability level.

Abel said, for example, that her company offers a series of equipment that features bidirectional resistance, which prevents sudden recoil of equipment components, providing a solution for locations adjacent to playgrounds.

Functional fitness is currently a trend, and the outdoor fitness industry has responded by making the experience available in parks, along trails and in other outdoor settings.

"Bodyweight resistance units are commonly used by entry- to intermediate-level park visitors," Abel said. "Resistance-free apparatuses are well suited to seniors, as they can help them regain some of their lost agility and enhance range-of-motion."

Seniors aren't the only group that needs user-friendly equipment. Minimum accessibility includes equipment spacing and surfacing material, for instance, but Abel said there can be more. One of her company's lines of fitness equipment allows for both the able-bodied and those in wheelchairs to exercise on the same unit, without the wheelchair user having to transfer.

If the budget allows, recreation organizations can have everything for everyone. Abel's company offers a complete outdoor gym that encompasses every type of exercise unit and can accommodate 83 users on 49 units. Abel said the ideal situation is to have every type of equipment laid out in a way to encourage user interaction.

"For those looking to establish a workout routine, having a social environment in which to exercise enhances motivation and commitment," she said. "Therefore, if the space is available, clusters of fitness equipment are preferable to individual stations. To maximize usage of an outdoor fitness area, it's important to locate the equipment in an area with high visibility, such as next to a parking lot, community center or trailhead."

Abel has tips for promotion as well.

"A well-publicized grand opening is key," she said. "Holding classes at an outdoor fitness area will help establish the habit of fitness among members of the community, who will likely continue to use the equipment after formal instruction has ended. Various entities installing fitness equipment have utilized various methods of generating awareness and increasing usage of their outdoor gyms—including featuring the gyms on their websites with links to video demos of each unit, passing out fitness guides at grand openings of the gyms, making them the centerpieces of community fitness challenges and more."

Shannon Descant, former program director of Move Bunkie Forward, an initiative to improve the health and well-being of the residents of Bunkie, La., coordinated the planning and procurement of outdoor fitness equipment from a Red Bud, Ill.-based manufacturer.

"This is our first experience with outdoor fitness equipment and we love it!" Descant said.

After Bunkie won a Healthy Behaviors Program Grant from The Rapides Foundation in 2014 to provide the community with opportunities, education, and resources to improve the health and quality of life of its residents, Descant took charge of the goal to increase opportunities for physical activity.

She chose to focus on creating an outdoor fitness park adjacent to a walking track, and has tips for communities considering outdoor fitness areas and equipment:

  • When planning to buy outdoor fitness equipment, take into consideration the space available, whether or not to group pieces together or to spread them out along some type of pathway, and the type of surfacing choice to install. "We used the poured-in-place rubber and thought this was a turnkey project, but then realized we were responsible for a concrete slab on which the rubber was to sit on," Descant said. "This added additional cost that was not planned for."
  • Programming can vary. People can use the equipment individually on their own time, or group sessions can take place in which the equipment can act as an exercise station or stations. "We see it being used both ways," Descant said. "We have also located the equipment adjacent to a walking track, which creates another level of training for people using the track for walking or running."
  • With regard to surfacing, do considerable research about prepping the area prior to surfacing installation. "Take into consideration who will have access to the area and make sure the equipment is easy to use, easy to understand, and possibly located in an area with a fitness or exercise goal already established," she said. "The addition of the equipment will create a new excitement."

The manufacturer that provided fitness equipment for Apex, N.C., expands on what a company can offer in the realm of outdoor fitness equipment with a mobile app for each of its systems. Available at no cost, the apps show three different levels of fitness for each component and give users instructional videos, 360-degree virtual tours and images of each component. The apps also offer users the ability to log workouts, time themselves and work toward goals.

Brian Johnson, chief marketing officer for the Fond du Lac, Wis.-based manufacturer, said there are many options for outdoor fitness that fit into a variety of budgets. For an entry-level budget, there are activities such as the company's twist on parallel bars, or a series of steps at different heights that challenge dynamic fitness and agility. Both of these can be used for a variety of exercises and are extremely versatile, Johnson said.

For a mid-level budget, customers can add pieces that create an obstacle course feel. "This will add an interesting element of fitness and keep some of the pieces with a lower cost that are extremely functional," Johnson said.

Finally, there's a full course plus turf and a 25-yard dash. That state-of-the-art setup is where the outdoor fitness equipment sector is headed, Johnson said.

"I think we are starting to see the future take shape," he said. "With the obesity epidemic at top of mind with a variety of national programs, it's on people's minds to get everyone moving and outdoors. We also thought about adolescents and how they are really too old, in most cases, for the playground and are looking for ways to engage maybe outside of, in addition to, or as part of organized activities.

Holding classes at an outdoor fitness area will help establish the habit of fitness among members of the community, who will likely continue to use the equipment after formal instruction has ended.

"Communities are looking to attract and retain residents and businesses and have realized the value outdoor spaces bring. Having a robust offering of activities and programming supports a healthy community, which ultimately leads to increased engagement."

Johnson said the addition of digital technology to all fitness activities not only enhances individual experiences, it can help build connections.

"I see apps as a way to form a community without actually living near one another," he said. "For example, being able to compete with others who have the same goals as you on a digital platform is something we see happening and continuing into the future."

AnneMarie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that offers a wide-ranging family of brands focused on play and recreation products and services, said that what happens before choosing a space and an equipment company is very important.

"These spaces can be configured to meet any budget, and with the wealth of options available, the most important thing is to meet with the community, discover their goals for the space, understand who the users might be, then take the available budget and design an environment that meets these criteria," Spencer said.

She said that because user groups are as diverse as the range of outdoor adult fitness equipment, understanding the priorities of the former can help inform choices for the latter, and ensure that an outdoor adult fitness area is meaningful. Spencer said outdoor fitness spaces see the highest use when users have a range of reasons to be there.

"By adding active elements so that athletes are engaged, alongside casual trainers, parents, the active aging population, deconditioned users and even families, you can ensure the space will get the highest use possible," Spencer said.

The huge popularity of obstacle course racing—think Tough Mudder and Spartan Race—is definitely influencing the choices for outdoor fitness, Spencer said. These courses can often be used by the whole family, so encouraging multigenerational fitness opportunities becomes an advantage, and a great motivation for families seeking ways to spend more active time together.

"Well-designed obstacle courses offer several options for traversing each obstacle, so the user can experience the course in a manner suited to their confidence and ability," Spencer said. "Another popular trend is bringing portable equipment to the outdoor adult fitness park. Having moveable equipment like ropes, sandbags, free weights and bands available for use can provide additional ways to use the space, offer a wider range of exercise possibilities, and can help facilitate classes, especially when the number of class participants exceeds the amount of available equipment."

Spencer said this use of portable fitness tools can be achieved by having set times of day when moveable equipment is available, or by allowing users to check out the equipment from a staffed facility on the property. Many pieces of outdoor equipment provide methods for attaching ropes, rings, suspension training apparatus and other devices that, as per current AS™ standards for fitness equipment cannot be a permanent fixture of outdoor fitness equipment.

By applying principles of universal design, operators can help ensure that their outdoor adult fitness areas are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, Spencer explained.

"There is equipment specifically adapted to meet the needs of users of mobility devices, so they are able to comfortably reach and use the equipment," Spencer said. "Including it in the design can increase usability of your space and its appeal to everyone.

"Remember that inclusion should apply to the entire environment, so thinking about surfacing, routes of travel, restrooms and convenient parking that is easily accessible are equally important to ensure that people can move about safely and comfortably in the outdoor fitness environment."

One of the keys to attracting usage of outdoor fitness areas, Spencer said, is making sure the community knows they are free to use, and making sure they are easy to access. The fitness area should easily connect to streets, parking and sidewalks, and provide bicycle or other non-motorized means and universal accessibility for people using mobility devices, she said.

"Be sure to consider site amenities like benches and trash disposal in the overall plan," Spencer said. "The fitness park should ideally connect to transit facilities, pathway networks and established pedestrian traffic. Community connectivity to other meaningful destinations, such as neighborhoods and urban centers, is also desirable."



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