Getting Fit in the Great Outdoors

Innovative Equipment to Expand Your Community of Wellness

By Deborah L. Vence

Outdoor fitness equipment is becoming a staple at many parks today, giving park-goers the opportunity to work out and get into shape for free, all while enjoying the fresh air. Everything from challenge courses to multigenerational space to adult fitness areas has helped to propel the growing popularity of outdoor equipment, with innovations continually expanding the audience for this popular amenity.

A Growing Trend

With more parks incorporating outdoor fitness equipment, "The variety of exercises [keeps] expanding in the outdoor fitness space. But, one thing we've seen consistently is a desire to ensure the gyms are places where everyone can come together to be fit," said Allison Abel, director of marketing for an Orange County, Calif.-based company that provides outdoor fitness equipment for parks, senior centers, schools and the U.S. military.

"While an outdoor fitness area may include equipment for those at high fitness levels, such as a functional fitness rig, ultimately project planners are looking for a way to serve as many people as possible, and to do it in a way that brings people together and fosters socialization," she said.

"More and more, you will see a combination of units to serve elite athletes and those just needing to get in some basic physical activity," Abel said. "In particular, those with disabilities are being given opportunities to work out alongside their able-bodied family members, friends and colleagues, and once project planners know that this is something they can help facilitate, they are eager to make it happen."

Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that offers a wide range of brands focused on play and recreation products and services, and its Center for Outreach, Research and Education, said that "Many customers are installing them near playgrounds, so that busy families can maximize their time at a park. Adults can work out but still keep an eye on their children at play.

"We are also seeing a huge trend toward obstacle course equipment. Obstacle course racing, or OCR, is the fastest growing sport in the world right now," Spencer said. "Coupled with the popularity of programs like 'American Ninja Warrior,' the excitement and popularity around this type of fitness is exploding. To answer the call, manufacturers are creating challenge courses that can be installed in public spaces. The very best ones allow families the opportunity to compete together in an intergenerational way. Obstacles are built to be intuitive, and provide several ways to traverse, so that they are applicable for all athletic abilities, with the option to use obstacles in more challenging ways as a person's strength and confidence increases."

In addition, she said, apps are available for some challenge courses so that "people can compete on a national level and see how their time stacks up to others playing on the same course design throughout the world."

Some of the reasons for the popularity of outdoor fitness equipment include the fact that there is no pressure to perform.

"People love to get fresh air and, best of all, it's free to use," Spencer said. "This is of key importance with underserved communities that may not be able to join, or even get to a gym. They make exercise accessible and affordable to all.

"Well-designed equipment is intuitive, so doesn't require special training or understanding of weight loading to use," she added, "so people of all ability levels can use it comfortably and confidently."

Meanwhile, Abel suggested that outdoor fitness equipment is popular because is it "so versatile and so universal."

"By adding fitness equipment to a park, you can expand the appeal of that park to nearly everyone in the surrounding community—from teens to seniors—regardless of their ability level or where they are in their fitness journey," Abel said. "We consider it to be the number-one amenity for the community by virtue of the fact that it can be used by so many and promotes not only healthy lifestyles, but also closer-knit communities.

"There have even been instances in which areas that formerly were overrun by negative elements have been totally changed when that area was transformed into a fitness zone. The positive activity pushed out the negative," she said, citing Simms Park as one example.

Simms Park in Bellflower, Calif., she said, includes "a huge variety of units, and you see everyone from grandparents to local amateur bodybuilders working out at the park alongside each other. Formerly the site was an unused structure housing shuffleboard courts, and the park would experience frequent illegal activity in and around the building. But that was all replaced with the grand opening of the fitness area.

"In the first few months the gym was open, park staff counted literally thousands of users coming to the fitness area," she said. "Even a smaller selection of units can have the same effect—the equipment selection just needs to be chosen wisely to accommodate all the intended users."

Who Benefits & How?

Abel noted that many obstacles exist in maintaining a fitness-focused lifestyle, with some of the biggest ones being "lack of time, not wanting to exercise alone, not knowing how to start, fear of injury and, in the case of private indoor gyms, the indoor environment and the cost."

"Outdoor fitness equipment allows people to overcome these obstacles," she added. "For one, it allows people to exercise with family members who would not go to indoor gyms. This means that family members and friends can accomplish two important things at the same time: spending quality time together and exercising."

And, "While equipment in private indoor gyms can be complicated and potentially intimidating, outdoor fitness equipment is typically simple in design and intuitive to use. Frequently, users that work out using their own body weight for resistance will reduce the chances of injury. Furthermore, outdoor fitness equipment presents no financial barriers to use, and is more inviting to those who'd rather exercise in the fresh air," Abel said. "Studies have shown that the outdoor environment promotes mental and emotional health, and that users will be active for longer periods of time when exercising outdoors."

Spencer noted that her company's research arm, CORE (the Center for Outreach, Research and Education), has done extensive research with scholars of fitness and kineseology to understand the benefits, published in the guidebook "Outdoor Adult Fitness Parks: Best Practices for Promoting Community Health by Increasing Physical Activity." She also offered a list of some evidence-based findings of outdoor fitness parks.

For example, she said, they:

>> Make exercise fun: "The addition of nature and fresh air helps make exercising fun and, therefore, more effective. Combining outdoor exercise, natural light and sensory stimulation has a 'salutogenic' effect: reducing stress and encouraging healthy behaviors. Exercising outdoors provides exposure to fresh air, nature and sunlight, which increases important levels of vitamin D."

In addition, research "suggests people who exercise outdoors are more likely to repeat the behavior and are more likely to engage in the activity longer than those who exercise indoors."

>> Are eco-friendly: "Equipment used in outdoor adult fitness parks requires no electricity, is low maintenance and uses very little human resources. A majority of the materials used in their construction, including aluminum, steel and sustainable plastics, are recyclable. The minimal impact on the natural environment is attractive to the developer, the funder and the end user, and many participants may link positive environmental contribution with greater enjoyment of exercise."

>> Promote friendships: "People who use outdoor adult fitness parks often socialize while exercising, strengthening community and interpersonal relationships. These relationships may then support increased use as participants more readily interact with each other, offering encouragement, motivation and support."

>> Are available to everyone: While there are numerous indoor fitness options, they also can be "costly and inconvenient," Spencer said. "Outdoor adult fitness parks can remove these barriers, which is especially attractive in lower-income neighborhoods. In fact, residents of high-poverty counties in the U.S. have obesity rates much greater than those in wealthy counties. By increasing the number of outdoor adult fitness parks available, especially in underserved communities, there is increased likelihood of creating positive change in overall fitness and health."

>> Improve health: "Regular physical activity is essential to health and longevity. Many people report preferring exercising outdoors, which may also have a greater effect on mental and physical well-being. Outdoor exercise is also rated as being more restorative compared [with] indoors, since natural environments reduce emotional and physiological stress. Exercising outdoors provides all the physical benefits of indoor exercise (blood flow, improved cardiovascular health, improved strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.) and can also provide vital exposure to sunlight that increases important levels of vitamin D, unlike indoor exercise."

>> Attract new users to outdoor environments: "Outdoor adult fitness parks provide additional opportunities for adults to recreate and participate in physical activity outdoors. People who exercise regularly may be attracted to these new outdoor locations, and create a true fitness 'destination' within a neighborhood. This may also help attract more non-users to the new and popular destination. Outdoor adult fitness parks located within sight lines of a playground promote active behavior in adult family members, increase the time spent at the playground, and help promote the importance of lifelong fitness on children."

>> Provide training opportunities: "Outdoor adult fitness parks are ideal locations for people with physically demanding jobs to augment their training. Firefighters, police teams and college athletes, among others, can benefit from the 'real world' environment, and the ability to set up training exercises in adverse weather."

>> Support community capital: Outdoor fitness attracts "… health-conscious people to a neighborhood and can often influence the behavior of non-exercisers, expanding the benefits associated with regular exercise to a greater number of people.

"Design is one of the most important criteria for a good outdoor fitness park," Spencer said. "If you think of the gym where there are hundreds of pieces of equipment to choose from, then compare to an outdoor fitness park where you may only have between six and 20 pieces of equipment, you can see how choosing the right 6 to 20 pieces to provide a well-rounded workout is critical. If all the apparatus in the space is designed to concentrate on only one area of fitness, for example, upper body, then users are not getting the full spectrum of exercise that is so important for good health and fitness."

Moving Outdoors

Besides the transformed Simms Park, examples of parks with outdoor fitness equipment include an initiative in Bunkie, La., Spencer noted, called "Move Bunkie Forward." The initiative involves a fitness park that opened at Bunkie Park in late February 2018.

The Bunkie community was able to use a grant to bring fitness opportunities to the public at zero cost, and hosts several fitness classes each week, ranging from yoga to circuit training, with anywhere from 15 to 25 attendees at each session. The initiative in Bunkie, which has a population size of around 4,000, is bringing the community together and providing a fitness solution to those who may not have access to fitness otherwise.

Another example Spencer cited is Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, a 231-acre Los Angeles City Park.

When it was decided to add fitness at the park, it was a necessity to include a multigenerational space to help ensure that local families found the exercise options meaningful. They wanted to ensure that, while the fitness area would be designed for adults, that there was a family-friendly area as well, so parents didn't have to worry about finding a caregiver to watch their children when they wanted to work out. They also wanted to be sure that the space made sense for athletes at all levels of fitness, from beginners to competitive level.

"The circuit is a comfortable space for adults of all ages and abilities to work out, with three separate adult fitness areas throughout the overall space: a therapeutic area, with a focus on rehabilitation, a main area for aerobic conditioning, muscle and core development, balance training and flexibility exercises, and an advanced area with bars, rings and other upper-body apparatus designed to advanced athletic skill," Spencer said. "Adjoining the three adult zones is an all-age area with a focus on climbing. While adults also use this area, it is age-appropriate for children, so they can play in a fitness-focused playful environment along with their adult family members."

Colts Fitness Park at Riverside Park in Indianapolis is yet another example, Spencer noted. One element of the space is a 40-yard dash that includes a timer and scoreboard for each of the two running lanes, so that family members young and old can compete, test their running ability and receive excellent cardiovascular benefits along the way. What's more, "a challenge course, located next to the 40-yard dash is a fun, new way to get multigenerational exercise."

She noted that "based on elements from the growing sport of obstacle course racing, as well as ninja warrior and the NFL combine, the course is achievable for people of all fitness levels. Designed to promote balance, flexibility, grip strength, aerobic conditions and muscular/core development, the course provides a total body workout. Each obstacle is ability-based, with several ways to traverse so that people can constantly challenge themselves and improve performance and condition as they use the course."

A dedicated fitness area for adults is adjacent to this course, featuring various strength and conditioning equipment, "… giving people the opportunity to get a gym-quality workout in a free, outdoor arena," Spencer said. "The area is designed to bring together people of all ages and fitness levels and to encourage them to be more active together."



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