Playgrounds are No Longer Just for Kids

huYou may have been exploring China when you came across a strange sort of playground. It may have looked strange because, well, there were no children. Instead, adults were using playground styled gym equipment. Or, maybe you were in LA.

Around the world, outdoor fitness centers have slowly become a natural part of urban life. America has joined this movement in an attempt to provide access to the outdoors and healthy living. The Trust for Public Land is a leader in this movement, by building ‘fitness zones’ in communities that need access to fitness areas the most.

Adrian Benope is the national Urban Director for the Trust for Public Land, a position where he is able to see the impact the fitness zones can have. In this interview, Adrian shared the practicality of the zones, and the unique advantages they have to offer.

Rebekah: Where can people find the fitness zones?

Adrian: The fitness zones were something invented by the trust. We find communities, mostly urban communities or suburbs with a high concentration of people with obesity, and things related to people not getting outside. Also places that don’t have gyms or other ways to get outside nearby. For a modest investment, the Trust teams up with the city park and for somewhere between 75 and 100,000 dollars, is able to install outdoor gyms. Suddenly people who normally don’t go out are coming out to this sturdy, easy to use gym. It becomes sort of a social space, attracts different age groups, maybe different ethnicities, depending on the community. There are grandparents, men, and women all exercising together. We are done or are in the process of creating 81 zones in the nation. We’re talking to cities about engaging in more zones. The majority of the zones are in warm weather,  forty zones are already in LA county alone. There’s nine that are constructed or soon to be constructed in Miami, and some more in St. Petersburg. There are eight more that will be built in Denver. We’re talking about starting in other cities like Boston. They’ve been very well used in warmer weather climates, and we want to see how colder climates use them.

Rebekah: What can people expect from the fitness zones, and how are they impacting people?

Adrian: The fitness zones are very much like an indoor gym, where you can work your upper and lower body. The thing that’s different is there’s no weights. Instead, there’s a compressed air system, or you work against your own body weight. They’re very simple and they’re built to be very durable. They’ve been a huge success, and we’re hoping to enter into studies with medical schools to document the outcomes. I was recently speaking  at a conference in Atlanta called Park Pride. They have a whole big push on getting people exercise outdoors.They said ‘don’t worry about trying to prove that people are loosing weight, or lowering their blood pressure. If people are exercising more, they’re getting healthier. What’s more important to prove is that people are using them’. So we’re trying to show that people are using them, and maybe that their health is also changing.

We’re wondering if we can make this wholesale. Is it possible to do hundreds or thousands? It costs a very small amount of money to create a fitness zone. When you get a playground, it costs a few hundred thousand dollars. An average fitness zone is no more than a hundred thousand dollars. Which would include the expenses for the Trust to oversee, and line up the contractors. We also attract the private funding part of it. It’s most effective when the local municipality share the cost. For even $50,000, people are getting a fitness zone. That’s not a lot of money for all the people using it and it’s a great return for the public health. It doesn’t compare to the cost that bad health causes.

Rebekah: Do you think that fitness zones strengthen the community by connecting people through a common interest in staying healthy? 

Adrian: Absolutely. It’s similar to the way a farmer’s market has multiple layers of value:

1.) There’s fresh food

2.) it becomes a gathering spot

Farmer’s markets only happen maybe a couple times a week though. A fitness zone is an everyday activity when the weathers good. It’s a new place to connect. I was in Miami in a very impoverished area, and these senior citizens all came over in a van. They were socializing and it was just great to see. Another time in LA, recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, men, women, grandparents were all together. The fitness zones become very much a social scene. It makes the place safer. A lot of value comes from having a park or fitness zone. In the same way that gyms are social meeting places, these can become meeting places, and maybe someone will meet their date there. You hear about someone meeting their girlfriend at the gym, it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened at a fitness zone.

Rebekah: Do you see more children learning to enjoy exercise as a part of their daily routine from an early age?

Adrian: Many of these fitness zones are either next to or in parks. We built a playground in an LA county community called El Sereno. There’s a big new playground, but within the playground, is an adult fitness zone. Children are playing, and they see their parents working out. The kids learn that they can use them when they get old enough. It’s ideal to have these fitness zones in or next to a playground, because it gets everyone engaged. Some cities don’t want unaccompanied adults right next to a playground, so then we just put it outside the playground. Either way you can make it work. If you have a place with basketball courts, it makes a lot of sense to have a fitness zone right there so that the prime users, teens and adults, will use it.

Rebekah: Do most fitness zones have someone who helps newcomers learn the equipment?

Adrian: Some cities have the luxury of having staff, engaging teens and seniors. It makes people feel safer. This makes having staff desirable, but not necessary. The equipment is very easy to figure out how to use, and they really don’t need any explaining. There are cities or counties that come up with different exercise regiments, and in that case you can put up a sign to explain them. That’s part of why the fitness zones are so inexpensive. It’s a low cost to maintain, and you don’t have to have any staff.

Unlike a pool, which is staffed, has security systems, and needs lots of maintenance, and then sits empty most of the year in most parts of the country. Many places are shutting down their pools because they are so expensive. Fitness zones in comparison are not expensive and offer a way to get exercise for more parts of the year.

Rebekah: By putting the fitness zones in lower-income areas, are there struggles with keeping the zones safe? Do you think that the zones help create a more positive, safe environment?

Adrian: I haven’t heard of any problems. They tend to be built in open places, so it’d be hard for someone to hide. They’re parks, so they’re going to attract users, and the more people there are using the space, the safer it’s going to be. If there was nothing there, it would be a hang out place. When you create it into a park, it becomes safe. I think most will tell you that these zones have become improvements to these parks.

Rebekah: Outdoor fitness zones have been used in other countries, what made the Trust for Public Land decide it was time for the US to incorporate these zones?

Adrian: Asia in particular has a lot of similar outdoor fitness equipment. I went to Singapore, and saw the equivalent of what we’re doing here. We didn’t event the concept, but we’ve sort of perfected it, almost like a franchise. Kind of like fast food, but in reverse, you’ll get healthy. It’s pretty hard to get healthy from fast food. We are a country that has a public health crisis, eating too much food, and not getting enough exercise. Exercise is one of the most surefire ways to help combat the unhealthy things like high blood pressure and weak bones. It’s well known that exercise can improve your psychological health; it just makes you feel better. All these benefits can happen when you just work out for thirty minutes a day, and it can be free. We’re trying to decide where we really want to put more fitness zones. We’d love to have one fitness zone per every fast food restaurant. We’ll see if we can attract that type of funding. Maybe every neighborhood in the city have a fitness zone. When you look at the over all cost, compared to the effects of poor diet and exercise, it’s a lot cheaper than treating bad health.

Rebekah: Logistically, how much maintenance do fitness zones need? How big of an investment are the fitness zones?

Adrian: You have to get the right equipment, so that it’s built to be durable. They’re not maintenance free, but they require very, very little. They’re not very complex. They don’t have electronic programs or anything complex, they’re just basic moving parts. This makes it easy for most parks to be able to maintain them.

If you want to support the zones, Adrian encourages readers to get in contact with the Trust for Public Land at a local office. Especially for those in larger cities, the zones are a growing endeavor, so be on the watch for more and encourage your municipality to work with the Trust.