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What to Consider When Adding Outdoor Fitness to a Park

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Working out at a health club isn't for everyone.

It's a fact that has been well-recognized for ages, but it's no longer a valid excuse for not exercising. Faced with a nationwide epidemic, communities and organizations are taking up arms against obesity and inactivity, breaking down barriers (both physical and psychological) that keep people from exercising. Parks and recreation organizations have been doing their part, creating new initiatives to appeal to the non-exerciser. For many, a particular point of success has been taking fitness outside of its traditional (and for some, unappealing) gym setting and leveraging the existing appeal of parks and green spaces.

(Photo by Shutterstock.com/Halay Alex)(Photo by Shutterstock.com/Halay Alex)

"Emerging science suggests that exercising outdoors increases the overall enjoyment of working out, as well as increasing the frequency and length of time spent exercising," says Stephanie Devine, vice president of sales and marketing for PlayCore Recreation, parent company to park equipment manufacturer UltraSite, which recently launched ActionFit, a new line of outdoor fitness equipment. "Outdoor fitness equipment is free to the user, encourages people to work out together, and is available nearly any time of day."

Over the past five years, outdoor fitness parks have emerged as a popular alternative to the traditional gym, touching down in major cities such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles and slowly muscling their way into smaller communities at parks, schools, even fitness clubs. The City of San Antonio has been especially proactive in this area, installing fitness stations in more than 30 of its parks since 2010 as part of a citywide fitness initiative. "The user traffic has increased a lot since the initial openings," says Sandy Jenkins, parks project manager with the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. "We would very much like to expand the fitness equipment into additional parks and continue to seek opportunities to do so."

For parks and recreation organizations that haven't explored the concept yet, there's no excuse not to get started. Here are the main considerations to help put a project in motion:
 

EQUIPMENT TYPE
Outdoor fitness equipment has been around for more than 40 years, starting with Parcourse-style systems such as Fit-Trail — static pieces of equipment such as chin-up bars, parallel bars, sit-up stations and benches typically spaced out along a recreational trail. With no moving parts, such systems tend to be easy to install and maintain, though they might not pique the interest of users quite like newer equipment options.

The concept of the outdoor "gym" — fitness equipment gathered into one space — has really caught on only within the past few years. Such equipment is more typical to that found in a fitness center and includes items akin to elliptical machines, recumbent cycles or lat pulldown machines — powered by the user, not a cord. "Body-weight resistance units are currently very popular," says Allison Abel, marketing manager for Greenfields Outdoor Fitness. "These types of units can be used by anyone, regardless of age or level of physical conditioning. Some units employ adjustable resistance as well, so that the user can tailor the workout to his or her own abilities."

As the popularity of fitness parks has increased, so have the options for purchasers. Manufacturers offer an increasing array of product features, including equipment specifically designed for use with wheelchairs, as well as equipment that can be adapted for both able-bodied users or those with assistive devices.

Within its 30-plus installations, San Antonio's parks department has experimented with a few different styles, including Playworld Systems' Energi, Health Trail equipment by Play and Park Structures and Health Beat Outdoor Fitness Systems. Each system offers different advantages that appeal to different users, says Jenkins. "We wanted to maximize usage by different demographics and ability levels."

Whatever features an organization is considering for its fitness park, make sure the basics are covered, says Devine. "Make sure the equipment aligns for total-body fitness. A well-rounded fitness program includes four elements of fitness: aerobic, muscle fitness, balance/flexibility and core. When selecting equipment, choose at least one piece in each of these four areas."
 

(Photo Courtesy of UltraSite)(Photo Courtesy of UltraSite)

LOCATION
Will the equipment be installed along a walking trail or pathway, or will it be in a cluster in one area in the park? How much space is available? Is there room to add additional equipment? "Many units are built to accommodate multiple simultaneous users, so that you can have 12 to 15 people exercising in about 900 square feet," says Abel. As with indoor fitness equipment, there should be enough space between pieces that users don't feel crowded.

"Best practice is to put the equipment clustered together in a visible location, which deters vandalism, as it will be more frequently used," Abel says.

Placing equipment in one specific area also encourages community and socialization. "We have stations placed around trails and centrally located," says Jenkins. "The centrally located equipment lends itself to being able to have several people using the equipment at one time with an instructor."

Proximity to parking is also important. The easier equipment is to access (and the less walking involved after a workout), the more likely it will be utilized. "One trend we're seeing is adding three or four fitness pieces on the perimeter of a playground to give the adult supervisors something to do while their child is playing on the playground," adds Devine.

While such arrangements allow parents to set a good example for their children, special care should be taken to keep the two zones — and their purposes — distinct, either through use of different types or designs of safety surfacing around equipment, or using plants or shrubs to create a divider between the fitness and play areas.
 

BUDGET
For the most part, outdoor fitness equipment costs much less than a playground system. "Expect to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 on equipment," says Devine, noting that additional components can be purchased individually and installed as funding allows, but a strong base setup is a must.

Consideration must be given to the cost of preparing the site of a fitness park, as well.

"The cost varies and depends on number and type of units selected, landscaping and surfacing," says Abel, adding that some of these costs can be mitigated. "We've installed units on the concrete pads of former tennis courts and shuffleboard courts. The equipment is perfectly suited to revitalizing an unused space."

As for maintenance, outdoor fitness equipment is designed with weather in mind, just like traditional playground equipment, requiring few ongoing maintenance costs. "We recommend periodic visual inspection of the units to make sure all is in working order," says Abel, a task often taken by the users themselves. "Communities seem to value the equipment and overall take pretty good care of it."

Devine suggests a more thorough yearly inspection, as well, keeping a detailed set of records for all inspections. "The hardware should be checked for tightness, and all parts should be checked for rust or paint loss and touched up as necessary."
 

BUILDING AWARENESS
Whatever type of fitness equipment is chosen, the most important factor in its success is making potential users not just aware of its existence but also familiarizing them with its use.

"When examining options, make sure the equipment comes with clear, easy-to-follow instructional signs," Devine says. "Ideally, each sign should have two to three short instructions for the exercise and a visual graphic of the exercise, as well as identify which muscles are engaged."

Many equipment lines also offer QR codes, a feature the San Antonio parks department is working on. "The comment that I have heard the most is that people want equipment that is easy to use and not complicated," says Jenkins. "We're working on a video that will be able to be accessed with QR codes located at the equipment to provide instruction on the proper use of equipment."

Offering classes or tutorials during the weeks after a fitness station's grand opening, when interest is at its highest, is also a good way to get users of all levels comfortable with the equipment, but instruction shouldn't end when the excitement has worn off. In San Antonio, the fitness parks are part of an ongoing citywide fitness initiative, says Jenkins. "We offer Fitness in the Park instruction and use the equipment to teach people how to work out for free, which has kept the equipment in use on a regular basis."

For a more comprehensive guide to outdoor fitness equipment best-practices, check out Outdoor Adult Fitness Parks: Best Practices for Promoting Community Health by Increasing Physical Activity, developed by PlayCore in conjunction with various fitness industry professionals and organizations

RELATED: Outdoor Gyms Catching On in U.S. Parks

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This article originally appeared in Parks & Playgrounds with the headline "Thinking Outside the Gym."

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