Hit the (Outdoor) Gym

May 1, 2013, Feature, by Carrie Madren

A new era of fitness trails and outdoor gyms helps communities stay healthy.Rounding the trail, sunlight weaves through the woods as I pass a dog walker and spy another fitness station, tucked neatly between the trees, with its tired sign and barely mulched pad. The faded, red-painted wood is worn, but still sturdy. No one’s using these fitness areas in this Northern Virginia park today, but it represents the old guard of fitness trails that began making appearances in neighborhood parks in the 1970s.

Now, in the 21st century, a new breed of modern fitness stations have local residents working out — often together, as they build community. These “outdoor gyms” offer quality, updated equipment that challenges people’s muscles and gets their hearts pumping.

During a time of tight budgets across the country, these outdoor fitness zones offer a free alternative to gym memberships. Many of these park gyms are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a bonus, people gain benefits from the fresh air and relaxation from spending time in a park.

Behind this growing trend, however, is a serious health problem: Americans are suffering from their poor diet and exercise choices. Heart disease claims some 600,000 people — one in every four deaths — in the United States every year. Obesity affects nearly 60 million adults, or about 30 percent of the adult population, and more than a third of all U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese. In addition, a wide range of other chronic diseases related to diet and exercise keep Americans in ill health.

Local governments are realizing that their communities are in serious need of exercise, and many believe that the answer to encouraging exercise lies in providing the means to get moving. To make it easier and more appealing for individuals to get fit, local park and recreation departments have invested in modern fitness stations to help get people moving — and prevent the health problems that are sure to develop if they don’t.

The New Era of Park Fitness Trails
Though pull-up bars, low beams to jump over, and push-up inclines have long graced fitness trails since the 1970s, today’s fitness-zone planners have modern options that include equipment with moving parts as well as updated classics.

In addition to colorful aesthetics and modern, durable materials, many of these pieces of equipment rival what you might find in an indoor gym: leg presses, lat pull downs, elliptical machines, stationary bikes, rowers, back extension machines and more. Some of these pieces accommodate two or more users at a time and are built for comfort and ease of use.

Though fitness “trails” may have been the standard of decades past — with the thought that users would intersperse strength training with walking or running — many parks have arranged the stations in one area, creating an outdoor gym or fitness zone where people can work out together.

Because park departments aim to get all ages and abilities out and exercising, these stations are created to accommodate anyone from teens to seniors and out-of-shape newbies to highly fit, regular exercisers. In some parks, the equipment is so popular that lines often form as people wait their turn to use the stations. In addition, these new all-weather machines require little upkeep and maintenance, and are made to last.

One Swedish company, City Art Gym, has even created outdoor fitness equipment that doubles as public art. It touts that these pieces are useful for smaller spaces or where a regular outdoor gym isn’t appropriate.

Among the benefits of having a park and recreation department behind the fitness zones is the ability to link outdoor gyms with fitness instructors and exercise groups. These groups may be especially helpful for seniors, who may be wary of exercising on their own or using unfamiliar equipment. In addition, most park departments post informative signs and instructions to help users understand how to stay safe and get the most out of the equipment.

Parks & Recreation Magazine followed up with three park departments across the country that have embraced this new wave of fitness trails and zones in order to keep residents healthy and moving. Here, they share how they did it and how these outdoor gyms have made their parks more popular than ever.

San Antonio, Texas
Over the last two years, San Antonio, Texas, installed some 24 fitness areas in city parks, each with five to eight new workout stations. To best site their new fitness stations, the city pored over health data maps, eventually deciding to focus on areas with a high concentration of people with diabetes.

“Our goal was to encourage people to utilize the existing walking tracks and to provide an additional opportunity for them to be able to lose weight or possibly bring diabetes under control,” says Sandy Jenkins of San Antonio Parks and Recreation, which installed two equipment systems to offer a full-body workout in addition to the aerobic exercise of walking or running. Some San Antonio parks have an outdoor gym set up while others have stations spread out along a trail.

To promote even more use of the equipment, San Antonio offers organized fitness opportunities through their year-round, free Fitness in the Park program. This is led by instructors who coach individuals and teach Zumba, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, boot camps, mommy and me, tae kwon do, circuit-training programs, walking for seniors, kettlebell conditioning and more.

Adding fitness areas cost San Antonio anywhere from $12,000 to $40,000 per park, depending on the number of stations. The project was funded in part through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to work with the local health district to curb obesity and diabetes, which are closely linked, Jenkins explains.

As part of San Antonio’s grant, a survey of people using the park equipment revealed that the new fitness stations boosted individuals’ number of visits to the park. For the four surveyed parks with new fitness stations, “the percentage of respondents who indicated their time spent at the parks increased was 58.33 percent, 42.11 percent, 39.13 percent, and 50 percent, respectively,” according to the survey.

“Everyone who has had the opportunity to use the fitness stations has remarked that they utilize the park more because of the opportunity to exercise more parts of their body,” Jenkins says. “Early on, we got several comments from people who had quit their gym membership because now they could get their full-body workout in the park.”

Miami-Dade County, Florida
Last year, Miami-Dade County, Florida, installed 10 fitness zones with about six to nine stations in each park, and it has plans to build about eight more zones. Planners sited zones in neighborhoods with high cardiovascular disease rates as well as in low-income communities where residents don’t have immediate access to gyms or the means to pay for a gym membership.

To encourage use throughout the year, the parks department planted trees around the zones to offer a shady canopy, explains Maria Nardi, chief of the planning and research division of Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces. In addition, the county created programs that facilitate people’s use of the zones —through classes and sessions with trainers. Seniors have special programs to help them become comfortable with the stations. Individuals can track their progress in exercise log books.

“Locating the stations in parks that have existing programs, so they’re part of a larger initiative, was important,” says Nardi, who explains that the zones are part of a larger county-wide vision to help increase the health and fitness of local residents.

“[Park projects] like this encourage people to get active and offer them a place to come together as a group and socialize. It not only benefits their physical health, but it also brings people together in a communal sense,” Nardi continues.

This community-building reaches beyond connecting neighbors to connecting the various partner organizations that care about public health. To make the fitness stations a reality,    the park department partnered with nonprofit The Trust for Public Land and the Miami-Dade County Health Department, which received a grant from the CDC and other partner organizations. The fitness zones cost about $75,000 to $100,000 per park, depending on the number of stations, Nardi reports.

To help measure the project’s success, the county is establishing measurable outcomes, but the popularity can already be witnessed. “When we visit one particular park, we see a line of people waiting to use the machines,” Nardi says. “It’s indicative that the community has found it and is making good use of it.”

Los Angeles, California
On the West Coast, the City of Los Angeles began installing their new fitness equipment six or seven years ago, and to date, they’ve placed fitness stations in more than 40 new and existing parks throughout the city, with about three to eight pieces of equipment at each park.

“We’ve found that the equipment is heavily, heavily used — and the communities were asking for it,” says Michael Shull, superintendent of Planning, Construction and Maintenance for the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Los Angeles’ fitness zones came about through a partnership with The Trust for Public Land and funding from other partner organizations.

“[Fitness stations are] actually one of the cheapest, most beneficial parts of a park that you can build,” Shull says. Such fitness zones provide good value for a park department’s dollars, he continues, because they cost (relatively) little to install but benefit communities immensely. The fitness zones cost about $20,000 to $40,000 per park in Los Angeles, according to Shull, and much of that cost is due to altering park infrastructure — such as grading, concrete work or moving existing sprinkler systems — to accommodate the zone.

The city intentionally placed many of these outdoor gyms in lower income areas, where people may not be able to afford gym memberships or have access to other fitness opportunities. Many of these parks were newly created.

“We built parks that are completely dedicated to fitness in some cases,” Shull says. “We opened one park that only has fitness equipment — there are no other amenities — and you drive by in the morning and see a lot of mothers working out with their children sleeping in strollers next to them, and in some cases, there are lines with people waiting to use some of these pieces of equipment.”

One councilmember told Shull that his only complaint was that there weren’t enough fitness stations and that the lines were too long every morning, Shull reports. Such anecdotal evidence tells planners that these outdoor gyms are a success. Like other park departments, the City of Los Angeles sought a variety of equipment to address the whole body and made many of the stations ADA accessible. The city is currently building 50 new parks citywide.

“It’s the biggest, most exhaustive park effort we’re aware of in the entire nation,” Shull says. Every one of those new parks will have fitness equipment installed. So far, 13 of the parks have opened since July 2012, and 20 more are slated to open by July of this year. “Generally for these smaller parks,” he says, “the community wants a playground — and fitness equipment.”

Freelance writer Carrie Madren lives in Northern Virginia.