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Outdoor Fitness Spaces

Mon, 03/21/2016 - 9:36pm
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7 months ago
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The Growing Trend in Exercise to Fit Every Body

Outdoor Adult Fitness Spaces

Evidence Based benefits of Outdoor Exercise

  • Improved mental well-being and physiological health
  • Disease prevention
  • Improved adherence to regular exercise, thereby driving positive health behavior change
  • Greater feelings of revitalization and positive enjoyment
  • Decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression
  • Increased energy
  • Greater satisfaction levels
  • Greater pleasant affective states, enjoyment, and intention for future participation
  • Higher level of physical activity in seniors
  • Access to green environments
  • Exposure to vitamin D through sunshine

Fitness trends seem to pop up faster than toast, every day it seems we get bombarded with messages about the latest ‘get fit now’ ideas. The question is, which ones are here to stay, and which are simply fads? To answer that, it’s important to look at the overall benefits, adherence, and adaptability, because if a fitness initiative cannot be adapted into our day to day lives, there is little evidence that it will be beneficial over a lifetime.

It’s no secret that we face a health crisis in America today. The American Heart Association states that more than one third of adults are obese,1 and estimates the cost of preventative health consequences due to obesity amounts to $254 billion per year in lost productivity and direct medical costs. If obesity continues on its current track, the total annual healthcare costs attributed to obesity could reach $957 billion by 2030, which would account for almost 20% of all health expenditures in the United States.2 Obesity has surpassed smoking as a health risk and has now adversely affected more people than alcoholism or poverty. It is linked to large increases in chronic medical conditions and significantly ever rising financial health expenditures. So what are some of the newest fitness trends that people really are embracing?

Outdoor Fitness Park

Trainers are incorporating gym equipment in Outdoor Fitness park classes to offer a rich workout experience

When it comes to finding exciting ways to get some exercise, think outside the box - or just outside. With most of us spending our working, sleeping, and eating hours inside, it seems like exercise time is the perfect time to get some fresh air. Interestingly, studies show that working out in the great outdoors may be more beneficial than we realize. According to several reports cited in Outdoor Adult Fitness Parks, Best Practices for Promoting Community Health by Increasing Physical Activity, people who exercise outside tend to repeat the behavior, and work out longer than indoor exercisers. Additionally, outdoor exercise helps improve mental well-being and physiological health, provides a greater feeling of revitalization and positive enjoyment, and decreases tension, confusion, anger, and depression. Add to that the access to green environments, the benefits of interacting with nature, and exposure to vitamin D, and it’s easy to see why outdoor exercise is increasingly popular.3

Parks and public spaces are embracing and growing the trend in a big way by creating outdoor spaces for adults to exercise, and there is mounting evidence that providing these spaces can improve health.4 Outdoor fitness spaces do not require gym memberships, can encourage communication and camaraderie between users, and are easily accessed when and where people need them. They can be challenging in some respects, as there is usually much less equipment than in an indoor gym, and sometimes the environment isn’t planned to offer a well rounded workout. In order to develop overall fitness, an environment needs to offer opportunities to promote aerobic activity, muscle development, core development, and balance/flexibility. The latter, which is one of the greatest concerns for aging people, is often the most overlooked in an outdoor gym, while upper body development may be overemphasized to the detriment of other areas of development. Outdoor fitness parks that feature the equipment spaced along a trail can utilize walking or running between stations as the aerobic element. 

Boot Camps

Boot camps are taking to the outdoors to promote health and wellness in fresh air

In Chattanooga, TN, the city has added several outdoor fitness options to attract a variety of users. In Warner Park, a popular family destination with a zoo, baseball fields, playground, and recreation center, an outdoor adult fitness trail provides space for adults to exercise. The space is often attended by runners who use the exercise stations in addition to laps on the trail for a full body workout. Across town, another outdoor fitness area called Main Terrain caters to several nearby crossfit boxes, incorporating adult size traverse rings, pull up bars, climbing walls, and pommels into a walking/running trail. Art installations and plantings ensure that the space is usable by people of all abilities, not just those who want to develop advanced fitness skills. Both Main Terrain and Warner Park’s fitness areas are used by the city to train firefighters, who can be found going through the paces in full gear. Ralph Aaron, a fitness trainer with the city stated, “We’ve eagerly embraced the outdoor trails as a valuable addition to our training arsenal for firefighters, as well as for others.” By communities empowering their residents to effectively advocate for outdoor adult fitness spaces, fitness is becoming more readily available to a greater number of people. 
It is important to think of all ages when planning recreation spaces so that families are encouraged to spend time together. Family time fosters emotional development in children and promotes the feeling of being connected for all. Children tend to do what their parents do, so if parents have an active lifestyle, so will their children. For older children and teenagers, exercise is an important part of mental health and can relieve stress and excess energy, while helping teenagers feel they are taking care of their bodies in a positive manner. A family-oriented outdoor fitness trend that is taking hold in parks (and schools) is the permanent obstacle course, like the Challenge Course found at Hornet’s Nest Park in Charlotte, NC. Children, teens, and adults can be found competing on the course, encouraging active time for the whole family, where no one is sitting on the sidelines in an observer role. The courses are modeled after popular obstacle race courses (one of the fastest growing sports in the world today) but require small footprints. Families asked to describe the one at Hornet’s Nest say it’s a combination of Ninja Warrior and the NFL Combine. 

Empty nesters and baby boomers are also embracing outdoor exercise as a social way to get fit. The indoor mall walkers of decades past are moving to the outdoors and seeking outdoor fitness spaces as a way to expand their modality beyond walking and to promote strength and balance which are critical in helping to avoid injuries sustained by inadvertent falls. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School, “Every year, one in three adults 65 or older falls at least once. In older people, falls can be serious, more than 90% of hip fractures result from falls. Falls also often lead to fractures of the spine, forearm, leg, ankle, pelvis, upper arm and hand. These injuries can undermine your independence. Hip fractures, in particular, also can increase the risk for early death.5” Practicing balancing exercises and muscle strength that promote good balance is an important part of functional fitness that ensures people can live active lives long into their senior years.

Functional fitness is a discipline that is not set to go away anytime soon as people are interested in maximizing the ability to move. Functional fitness is one of the biggest buzz terms in fitness right now, and stems from people’s desire to avoid injury and encourage enjoyment of life.  Simply defined, functional fitness is applying strength training to maximize a person’s real world experiences. It’s not new, but has recently expanded in popularity, as people are focusing on exercising as a way to improve their life quality. For most of us with sedentary occupations, sitting at desks, computers, etc. can cause poor muscle tone, bad posture, and lack of mobility. Functional fitness therefore is of great interest, not necessarily to become a super athlete, but to be able to carry groceries, run for the bus, or play with grandchildren.  Sports trainers have long known the value of functional training, as different players on a team may need different skills to be successful in their position. Similarly, people need different fitness abilities to be able to function in their life position. Take the grandparent who wants to lift their grandchild as an example. Without the correct muscle tone, this action could easily lead to injury. Building those muscles, perhaps by swinging a light kettlebell, then building to heavier weights as they develop tone, can help them gain the ability to lift with less risk of injury. Functional fitness should be considered a priority for older adults since people lose strength, elasticity, and endurance as they age. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of this loss is to engage in exercises to help promote balance, flexibility, movement, and quality of life. Functional fitness continues to grow in popularity across a wide range of ages and abilities and for people looking to improve and extend their quality of life, range of motion, and ability to move more effectively, it is a welcome discipline. A fitness company out of Knoxville, TN, recently introduced an outdoor functional fitness kit in a bag that trainers can use to lead classes in parks or other public outdoor spaces. Filled with all the equipment and instructional cards to lead a functional fitness class, the contents zip up into a portable rolling bag. With companies focusing on ways to make outdoor class facilitation easy, outdoor fitness is certain to continue to grow in the future.

Challenge Courses

People of many ages love competing on Challenge Courses

Wearables, though not an exercise, are certainly a growing trend in outdoor fitness. It seems every month there are new wearables to track everything from distance traveled, steps taken, and calories burned to heart rate, sleep quality, and correct posture. Wearable technology continues to evolve, and it’s not difficult to imagine a health tracker that can serve as fitness coach, dietary advisor, and health metric tracker in the not too distant future. Take for example the Qualcomm Tricorder contest, launched in 2012. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you know every visit to the sick bay began with a scan of the handheld tricorder to measure vitals and make a diagnosis. Qualcomm challenged teams to make the fantasy a reality and create a handheld diagnostic tool for people’s health. In 2015, the seven finalists were named, and testing is underway to determine the grand prize winner. Apps are also helping to promote outdoor fitness; there are apps to map where you run/walk, like Map My Walk and Runtastic, and even apps to encourage healthy competition, like Fitocracy, GameTime, and Every Move. One of the latest connections between outdoor fitness and apps is the growth of virtual runs: where a runner registers for a “race” of predetermined distance, runs it in their locality- tracking their time/distance with a tracking app, then uploads it as proof of completing the “race.” Once they have proved completion, the race organizer sends them a finisher medal. 

It’s pretty clear that health wearables will only grow more useful, provide more data, and continue as a popular trend in modern fitness, as they put the power of data into a user’s hands. It will be interesting to see how the smart watch, like Apple Watch or Moto 360, will affect screenless wearables like Jawbone or Fitbit. Either way, the wearable as a fitness tracker is here to stay.

No matter which way you approach fitness, there will always be new innovative ways to get outdoors and measure an effective workout. With all the benefits associated with the behavior, there’s no reason to delay finding the method that works for you!

Anne-Marie Spencer serves the recreation industry as the Corporate VP Marketing for PlayCore in Chattanooga TN and a member of the company's Center for Professional Development.  She has presented over 80...