Feature Article - October 2020
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Fresh Air & Exercise

For Public Health, Prescribe Outdoor Fitness Areas

By Joe Bush

A few years ago Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, decided to combine the benefits of fresh air with physical therapy for senior citizens on the mend. For the equipment needed to strengthen muscles and improve balance and flexibility, the hospital turned to outdoor fitness equipment, working with a provider to design a set of machines usable by all abilities and for the strengthening needs of the patients.

It's an example of one of the benefits of using equipment outdoors for fitness, and more and more communities are interested in adding some sort of exercise-focused hardware to their parks or campus offerings. The desire to get outside during the pandemic sheltering has emphasized the importance of having outdoor options in the community.

"It's very seldom we have a conversation with any kind of outdoor recreation customer that they don't ask about outdoor fitness, and sometimes it's the only conversation they want to have," said Kent Callison, marketing director for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness and play equipment based in Fort Payne, Ala. "They know that when you get people moving, you lower the risk of heart attack and stroke and other problems related to obesity, but also you create an opportunity to develop social capital—people coming together, socializing with others they might not otherwise meet and finding common ground when they're exercising together."

The need for and benefits of exercise are well known, but the challenges to exercise facilities are less so. A lot of people cannot afford a gym membership, or have social anxiety, or don't own transportation to get to a health club. There are not enough parks in the United States, but ideally the ones that exist are located within walking distance of many. Outdoor fitness equipment in parks provides ways for age groups older than children to add activity to their lives.

"Your built environment, the places you live in, really play a significant role in your health outcome," said Nette Compton, associate vice president for strategic plan implementation for the Trust for Public Land, which has installed more than 100 outdoor Fitness Zones in communities of need across the country. "You can look at health disparity by ZIP code, and when you think about the health community, especially the last few years has really zeroed in on the fact that your health isn't coming from your doctor's office, it's coming out of where you live and the resources you have access to.

"We're part of a public health landscape and can play a significant role in helping to build healthier communities."

The ROI seems good as well, said Allison Abel, marketing director for an Orange County, Calif.-based provider of outdoor fitness equipment. "On the planning side, cities noticed that—as one individual expressed it—'the cost per energy unit burned is by far the cheapest of any intervention you make for health and fitness in a park,'" Abel said.

She cited a recent study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that revealed that a properly planned and executed outdoor gym does result in greater energy expenditure in public spaces.

"The results will vary from project to project, but we have seen from this and other studies—as well as much anecdotal evidence—that outdoor gyms are a viable way to encourage local community members to pursue healthier lifestyles," she said.

Benefits of outdoor fitness areas and equipment include:

>> They're free to users, providing fitness options in underserved communities.

>> People who exercise outdoors are more likely to repeat the behavior and for longer periods than people who exercise indoors, according to research by Leisure-net Solutions.

>> They are social outlets that build community capital.

>> They can be designed for people of all abilities and fitness levels.

>> They provide exposure to fresh air, nature and sunlight, which increases levels of vitamin D.

>> They offer opportunities for revenue generation through program agreements with certified personal trainers.

>> They can be catalysts to encourage non-exercising adults to be more active.

>> They may boost interest in related community services, such as nutrition education and health screenings.

>> They promote pride of place among neighborhoods.

>> They might qualify for increased grant funding related to obesity prevention and reduction.

When located within sight lines of a playground, they promote active behavior in adult family members, increase time spent at the playground and help promote the importance of lifelong fitness to children.

For people of a certain age, outdoor exercise equipment was simple and involved wood. A pull-up station, parallel bars for pushups and dips, a bench of some sort for sit-ups, a set of bars to be used however one saw fit. In areas of a certain dry and sunny climate, full-fledged weightlifting gyms were outdoors, most famously in Venice Beach, Calif.

But as companies began to compete through researching and developing unique products, that fitness equipment evolved to be made of materials that could handle all climates and delivered performance for people of all abilities wanting to improve their muscles, flexibility, core, balance and aerobic fitness.

"The idea is to create something that's very familiar-looking so everyone immediately feels comfortable using it, but making it really durable to withstand the elements," said Callison.

Today's equipment has instructional signage for users who aren't familiar with it, and even scannable QR codes that link to videos. They accommodate all ages and abilities; some equipment's adjustable options and heights are designed so that folks in wheelchairs can use the same equipment as those who aren't.

A more recent addition to outdoor fitness options is the obstacle course fitness area. Inspired by the popularity of shows like American Ninja and the urban gymnastics fad parkour, challenge courses test users' running and climbing and agility and strength in ways that involve competition with others.