Fitness al Fresco

Ideas for Adding—or Expanding—Outdoor Exercise Opportunities

By Emily Tipping

It'll be some time before we fully understand just how much the coronavirus pandemic upended our daily lives and habits. It changed the way many of us play and rest, and it changed the way many of us work and work out. Looking for an outlet—for movement, for socializing and for just plain getting away from the grind as it moved into our homes and made itself comfortable—many of us went outside.

Luckily, many folks found an entire infrastructure of parks, trails and equipment waiting to accommodate their needs. But others—especially those looking to replace indoor gym workouts with something similar, or those living in areas that lack access to outdoor exercise opportunities—may have been left wanting.

Bringing outdoor fitness to the pandemic-weary public—helping those seeking a workout to escape potential exposure to illness—has been a laudable goal over the past few years, but it's just the most recent addition to a long list of reasons why you should consider adding outdoor fitness, or expanding your existing options.

"Before the pandemic even began, communities were looking at alternatives to indoor gyms, and park planners began creating programming for safe outdoor fitness classes," said Scott Roschi, creative director at a Delano, Minn.-based manufacturer of playground and park equipment, including outdoor exercise equipment. "Parks are the great equalizer, and creating spaces for the community to connect is more important than ever."

"We know through research and practice that physical exercise is a huge factor in overall health, both physically and emotionally," said Stephanie Devine, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for a manufacturer of park and outdoor fitness equipment based in Red Bud, Ill. "Exercising outdoors allows people to work out freely, at their own pace, and provides the ability to physically distance when appropriate. We have seen a rise in outdoor fitness trends in the past decade, but we have seen a surge since COVID-19. Communities understand the importance of providing healthy options and overcoming obstacles with limited indoor classes."

Simply put, we all need to move our bodies in order to live well, said Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Orange County, Calif., but there are many obstacles in the way. Time, budget constraints, and a dearth of self-confidence, support and encouragement can all make it difficult for folks to add healthy movement to their lives. "Moreover," she added, "some demographics tend to exercise less than others, and it's important that we provide easily accessed amenities to encourage them to get moving."

Seniors are particularly at risk, Abel said, with a CDC study finding that nearly three in 10 (28%) of adults 50 years of age and older were physically inactive. What's more, "People with disabilities are 53% more likely to be overweight than adults without a disability, according to the Journal of Disability Policy Studies," she added. "A simple reason for this is that they simply don't have places to exercise that are convenient and that will meet their needs. Outdoor fitness zones can be part of the solution."

Indeed, Sarah Lisiecki, communications and education manager for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment, playground equipment and more, said that outdoor fitness areas within communities help people stay active while bringing equity and access to exercise. "There are a variety of options that support different exercise experiences, but all have one thing in common—getting people moving outside together."

"We've seen firsthand how adding outdoor fitness spaces to a park or recreation area activates that space and attracts adults of all ages. And studies show people who exercise outdoors exercise more frequently and for more extended periods" explained Jon Walker, product manager for outdoor fitness products at a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of playground, park and outdoor fitness equipment.

"For parks, it's a great way to provide an effective exercise experience without barriers to entry, like a costly gym membership," he added. "For colleges and universities, there is evidence that regular outdoor physical activity can reduce stress and anxiety and help reverse the alarming trend of mental health issues among college students."

"Even a relatively small amount of time devoted to exercise can bring benefits, and when located in areas that are already highly frequented such as public parks, outdoor fitness areas make exercise easier to fit into busy schedules," Abel said. "Parents who are taking their kids to the park with outdoor fitness equipment there can exercise without adding more to their schedules. Others can go in the morning or on the way home from work."

She added the outdoor fitness equipment is generally intuitive to use, making it less intimidating for new exercisers and others whose self-confidence is lacking. "For those who lack support, it's easy to bring friends and family members to the fitness zone to join them for workouts, regardless of whether they have gym memberships. Outdoor gyms can even attract people to the park or facility, as they provide ways for teens and adults of all ages to get active. Outdoor gyms do not require staff, and there are no overhead costs involved. In short, outdoor fitness areas can be great resources for community health and positive spaces to bring people together."

"If better community health and quality of life is your goal, investing in outdoor fitness spaces is a proven way to make a positive and long-lasting impact," Walker concluded.

Get Started

There are a number of crucial considerations that will help define the scope of your outdoor fitness area. Begin at the beginning, with your space and your community.

First off, you need to assess your space, Abel said. "Beyond the simple question of how large an area is available, consider what else is nearby and who frequents this area already," she said.

For example, at a park in Florida, a gym was installed next to tennis courts used by a wheelchair tennis league. "In designing the outdoor fitness area, the planners made sure to include plenty of wheelchair-accessible equipment," Abel said. "Many of the units were dual-user—that is, they accommodated someone in a wheelchair on one side and an able-bodied person on the other side, making the area highly inclusive. In addition, the gym also featured functional fitness equipment to cater to advanced users."

Your users are another essential element to take stock of, and Roschi said you should begin by connecting with your local community to find out just who they are—and what they're looking for. "Speak with personal trainers who are looking for alternatives to working out and options to use with their clients. Connect with other fitness groups—find groups on Facebook in local parks, etc.—and ask what types of fitness people are interested in," he said. "There are more options in outdoor fitness equipment today than ever before so connecting with potential users will provide the best idea of the right style of fitness to provide."

Just as important as considering your current users, you should think about who will use the space in the future. Walker said it's important to create "a space that meets the immediate need, but allows space and budget to expand over time as needs change" (more on how to expand your existing fitness area coming up!). He added, "The Mayo Clinic describes five essential elements of a well-rounded workout: aerobic fitness, muscle fitness, core fitness, balance, and flexibility. Plan a space that provides all five elements to ensure everyone gets a balanced exercise experience."

Walker added that if you're just getting started with outdoor fitness, it's good to take it slowly. "If you have a walking path or trail through a park or green space, add a few outdoor fitness products at the trailhead," he said. "Over time, you can install additional products along the trail to encourage people to add more exercise to their walk."

Walker and Devine's parent company has developed an outdoor fitness design guide incorporating research from leading experts to help plan outdoor fitness spaces. "This is an excellent tool, which walks you through the entire process, from advocating for an outdoor fitness park to promoting it after completion and everything in between, including the benefits, best practices when it comes to design and case studies from outdoor fitness spaces."

Lisiecki offered a list of special considerations to take into account as you determine how best to use your space to make sure it can accommodate everyone comfortably while offering challenge at the same time:

  • Age range of users.
  • Inclusivity. "Creating a space that is both accessible and equitable means everyone will be able to find the best of themselves through fitness," Lisiecki said.
  • Progression, to allow people to continue to use the area as their skill level improves.
  • Instruction. "Exercising with proper form is important for safety and results," she said. "Having instructions via video or on an app allows people to see how to use the equipment and what levels are available to them."
  • Capacity. How many people do you want to accommodate at once?
  • Budget. Available space, and how best to use it to meet objectives. Amenities to enhance comfort, such as restrooms, picnic areas and shade.
  • Location. Is it easy to access? Is it adjacent to other play or recreation spaces?
  • Parking.
  • Visibility. "How will people know about this space? Can they see it from a street? A neighborhood? Signs?"

"There is a lot of room for creativity in the design process," Abel said. "Our company just opened a new gym that featured a shade design created just for that park. You can also play into a parks' theme—we've seen equipment installed over a concrete pad designed to look like a soccer ball to dovetail with the main feature at that particular park."

Expand Your Options

If you already have an outdoor fitness space, your work might not yet be complete. Are there ways to expand your offerings to meet the needs of even more users? How can you adapt to ever-changing fitness trends?

"We have seen trends such as mud runs, obstacle races, CrossFit and parkour courses popping up all over the world," Devine said. "Outdoor equipment today often mimics what a user can find in an indoor gym. People want to be challenged, they want to try something new and different, not only for themselves, but also something to do with friends and their community members. Outdoor programs help trainers and users alike offer the ability to try something new and avoid burnout from the same routine."

Before taking on the latest trends, however, you should take a step back and consider the demographics of your current users, according to Abel. "This will help determine what needs to be added," she said. "If the gym generally sees users at the beginning fitness levels, consider adding functional fitness equipment, an obstacle course or a ninja course to serve athletes and park visitors at advanced fitness levels. If the outdoor fitness area primarily consists of static equipment, such as pull-up bars and dip stations, adding equipment that is accommodating to those not able to perform the more challenging exercisers will make the area more well-rounded and inviting to all."

Lisiecki agreed. "Adding in equipment that complements your existing equipment but provides a different exercise experience is a great way to add new life to an existing space," she said. "Events that draw people in for adventure and challenge will attract a new buzz in the community."

Other ideas? Roschi suggested adding instructional QR signage covering how to use the equipment, as well as encouraging personal trainers to offer classes in your fitness area to help build a community of new users. Walker recommended the addition of shade, whether through trees or freestanding shade structures, to keep the fitness area "cooler and more comfortable."

Don't forget to promote your space. Walker said that people can't use something they don't know about. Sharing photos on social media channels and working with local media are a couple of ways to get the word out.

"Finally," he added, "consider expanding outdoor fitness spaces to other areas of your campus or community. The closer and more accessible outdoor fitness spaces are, the more likely they will be used."

Maximize Your Reach

How can you ensure you're reaching everyone in your community who would like to access outdoor fitness opportunities? Begin at the beginning, and ask.

"Creating a well-rounded fitness zone starts with knowing the needs of the community," Abel said. "Outdoor gyms can be designed to be accessible and inclusive to all groups, including beginners, advanced users, seniors and people in wheelchairs. This is a great goal to strive for and can be achieved through mixing and matching equipment that best suits each group."

Walker agreed that it's crucial to consider the people using the space. "Before you design or commit to any design, talk to the community members," he said. "Hold town hall meetings. Set up polls on social media. Find out what is needed so you can meet the need."

"For beginners and seniors, include units that use a proportion of body weight for resistance, as well as resistance-free apparatuses," Abel added. "These types of units are inviting and intuitive to use, and serve as a great entry point to the fitness area, helping users gain confidence to progress to more challenging exercises. Resistance-free machines are excellent for seniors as they help them increase their range of motion and recover some of their lost agility. For more advanced users, functional fitness equipment can provide exciting challenges."

You can customize a functional fitness rig with a wide variety of options, she explained, helping to create a space tailored to your exact needs.

"Next, outdoor fitness equipment created for individuals in wheelchairs can make a gym truly inclusive," Abel added. "It gives the option to those with mobility impairments to exercise alongside their able-bodied friends and family members.

"Finally, obstacle courses and ninja courses provide more rigorous adventurous options to get the blood pumping. These courses offer many fun, challenging features such as climbing nets, rotating pull-up bars and cheese walls."

Walker broke down three important user groups to consider: active, aging adults, who need fitness products that provide therapeutic support and enhance balance and flexibility; younger adults and families, where an obstacle course might encourage fun, friendly competition; and those requiring accessible inclusive equipment.

"Some communities use a combination of all three to accommodate the most people possible," Walker said. "We've also seen many fitness spaces installed adjacent to playgrounds so parents and children can be active at the same time."

Ultimately, Lisiecki said, "Adding an outdoor fitness component is an effective way to get kids, families and community members moving together outdoors. It's a draw for people to get out and discover other amenities and a way for communities to attract residents, businesses and even events and tourists."

"I think we are just at the tip of a much bigger explosion in outdoor fitness spaces," Devine concluded. "As we see more people move to outdoor workouts, equipment providers are going to have to evolve with the trends and needs of communities of all shapes and sizes. I think we will see a lot of indoor gyms open outdoor spaces and communities expanding their offering for all ages and walks of life. Programming will continue to be a huge need to help people be the best they can be." RM



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