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Maximize Usability of Your Outdoor Gym

By Emily Tipping


When planning and expanding outdoor fitness opportunities, you have to take the needs of all potential users. That means taking into account a wide variety of fitness levels, from beginner to old pro, as well as various age groups, disabilities and more. We talked to experts on outdoor fitness equipment about how to best design your outdoor gym to maximize usability for your park visitors.

All Fitness Levels

To make things simple for those who are new to outdoor fitness, go with equipment that mimics what they might see in a gym.

"Start with fitness equipment that is familiar-looking," said Jon Walker, product manager for outdoor fitness products at a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of playground, park and outdoor fitness equipment. "People are more likely to use products that look like something they already know. For example, a chest press or chin-up bar outside should look like those you'd find in an indoor fitness center."

In addition, Walker said instructional signage with illustrations on how to use equipment, or links to videos users can watch can be helpful to get new users going.

"Maximum usability again goes to the greatest amount of a variety of exercises, along with great visual how-to instructions," agreed Scott Roschi, creative director at a Delano, Minn.-based manufacturer of playground and park equipment, including outdoor exercise equipment. "Manufacturers may even go a step further with a QR code to access further instructions on use. Approachable and very readable signage (even consider multilingual), not just individual instruction, but proper use instruction, could be seen as the most important element to usability. If a user comes to the fitness area and does not understand how to use the equipment, they may turn around and leave or they may attempt use and injure themselves. Providing the community a variety of active and passive options means you will reach the greatest number of potential users."

Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Orange County, Calif., agreed: "Signage and clear instruction on how to use the equipment is also helpful for users who are beginners. Programming can also be offered to show new users how to use the equipment to make the space more inviting for them. Some outdoor fitness equipment even comes with an app to show users tutorials and allow them to track their workouts."

Another way to accommodate as many community members as possible is by building an environment that allows people to be beginners and advance through more difficult exercises as they build competence and confidence, said "For instance," he said "think about creating a space where individuals can use their own bodyweight to exercise, in addition to including a variety of full-body exercise equipment. Even more, circuit training spaces allow individuals to use the equipment and also attach their own fitness bands to modify the exercise to fit their needs."

"Designing for progression and at different levels is important to creating a space for everyone," said Sarah Lisiecki, communications and education manager for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment, playground equipment and more. "An obstacle fitness course, a group of dynamic fitness events and some circuit events is a great mix to engage people of all ages and levels. Providing accessible fitness events for differing abilities allows everyone to exercise in the same space. Finally, designing for different ages and goals is also something to consider. A mix of cardiovascular opportunities, strength training events and an offering of lower-impact equipment supports everyone's abilities and goals."

All Ages & Abilities

Who are your users? Teens and young adults? Retirees? Moms and dads watching their kids on the play equipment nearby? Outdoor fitness can easily be designed to suit a wide range of age groups.

"The best part about outdoor fitness is it is truly designed for all adults, ages 13-plus," said Stephanie Devine, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for a manufacturer of park and outdoor fitness equipment based in Red Bud, Ill. "There are universal designs to accommodate those in a mobility device, there are designs focused on rehabilitation and balance, and there is equipment that can be utilized by a beginner up to a seasoned athlete to provide a great workout, with various modification options.

"Of course, individual results all depend on the user's lifestyle and frequency and types of exercise," she added. "One thing we do know is that simply being outdoors is good for everyone. Outdoor exercise will improve your mood, your energy level and your endurance."

Lisiecki pointed out that the obesity epidemic among children and adolescents is driving attention to outdoor fitness offerings. "Engaging this population, as well as adults and 5-to-12-year-olds, to participate in fitness can be difficult. Time, lack of physical literacy and not enough spaces are all reasons people don't exercise. Creating a fun and engaging atmosphere makes it much easier and with challenges and tangible results, people will stay motivated."

Take inclusion into account as well. There are myriad factors to consider to ensure your fitness area is approachable and accessible for all.

"Placement of an outdoor gym is a big factor," said Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Orange County, Calif. "The gym should be easily accessible with level surfacing to it. This is especially important if putting in wheelchair-accessible equipment."

Make It Inviting

Other considerations will also go a long way toward making your outdoor fitness area more inviting and accessible to users.

"Another options to make an outdoor gym more welcoming is to add shade to provide some relief from the sun rays while park users are exercising," Abel said.

Roschi agreed. "Shade could be seen as the most important element in a fitness area," he said. "Shade will keep the fitness area protected from UV rays, keep it cooler and keep it drier on a rainy day, which means it can be utilized for greater hours each day. Having a space that is comfortable no matter the weather really encourages more users to take their exercise outdoors, and a shaded space does this better than almost anything else."

Surfacing is also an important consideration. "Unitary surfacing is a key element, whether poured-in-place, tiles or synthetic turf, the surface allows users to navigate to all areas of the fitness area," Roschi said. "The other benefit of a unitary surface is it allows users to bring their own fitness mats for stretching and yoga activities."

"The best way to maximize usability is to make sure you incorporate equipment for all," Devine added. "You will want to make sure your space is accessible and that you incorporate multiple options for users of all abilities and comfort levels. But there are a lot of factors beyond the equipment that plays into the usability of the space." These include: convenience, with a central location and plenty of parking as well as bike parking; safety, ensuring users will feel safe; comfort, with benches and shaded areas; and multipurpose, locating the fitness area near other community spaces, such as playgrounds and walking trails, she said.

"Adding an outdoor fitness component is an effective way to get kids, families and community members moving together outdoors," Lisiecki concluded. "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."