Do you ever get the impression that outdoor fitness spaces are only for the young? Kids get playgrounds, while adults get…walking paths…and park benches. Even if you’re lucky and your park has outdoor fitness trails dotted with exercise equipment, they’re likely geared toward the young and fit…the Ironman-triathletes-in-training.
What about the rest of us who, no matter what our age, want to stay fit and agile, flexible and strong, and have some fun doing it out in the fresh air? Now there’s a movement to create a new kind of outdoor activity space. Call them fitness parks, outdoor gyms or playgrounds for seniors, they’re popping up in local and national parks, town recreation centers, retirement communities and senior centers. “I’ve been to 33 countries now, and almost every single country I’ve been to has them,” says Colin Milner, founder and CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “The popularity is really picking up.”
Why the sudden interest? Outdoors is where we are. As we age, we’re less likely to do strength training in an indoor gym, but we still walk outdoors. “If the older people aren’t into fitness centers, take the fitness center to them!” says Milner. A related trend: Many parks are replacing outdoor trails and exercise areas designed for a younger fit population with equipment that is more accessible to everyone.
Read on to find out how this new kind of fitness equipment works (spoiler alert—it’s fun!) and how you can take advantage of the new fitness movement in your own community.
A SEESAW YOU WON’T FALL OFF
Some of these fitness parks are multigenerational, so that, say, grandparents can easily play with their grandchildren. (And that means actually play—not just stand there and watch the urchins go down the slide.) The equipment is easy to use, low impact and designed to prevent falls. It works almost every muscle group, yet can be used by people with limited agility, balance and flexibility. Some equipment allows people in wheelchairs to roll up and participate. You might see…
• A swing that is strong and has wide seats so adults, and not just kids, can use it.
• A slide that’s adult-sized and has a gentle slope so it’s safe for all ages.
• A roomy, comfortable outdoor recumbent bike that’s easy to get onto and off of—and inviting to use.
• A two-person cross-country ski machine that’s easy to use and fun for people of any age from teens to octogenarians—truly multigenerational.
• An elliptical machine in which you stand and simply swing your legs to and fro—a great way to improve range of motion.
• A “Tai Chi Spinner”—two wheels, one for the right hand and one for the left, that you can rotate this way and that way together or separately to improve flexibility in your arms, shoulders and wrists. (It’s also good as a warm-up for golf.)
• A two-person “rotator”—think of it as a really safe seesaw—that stretches the backs and hips while strengthening the abs.
• Stand-alone “activity panels.” One panel has a bar that you lean against to do push-ups (without getting down to the ground), another a bar that you lift over your head to strengthen your shoulder muscles, a third instructs you on how to do easy mini squats, while a fourth has handles that you turn for upper body cycling.
FITNESS BENEFITS—AND BEYOND
Most multigenerational outdoor fitness parks cover the four key elements of fitness—aerobic activity, strength training, balance and flexibility. Strength training is particularly important as we age, says Chhanda Dutta, PhD, chief of the clinical gerontology branch in the National Institutes of Health’s division of geriatrics and clinical gerontology. As we age, it’s common to lose muscle mass, but strengthening muscles is key to enjoying our favorite activities and hobbies…and having a good quality of life. Balance is often overlooked, too—by both young and older adults. “It isn’t until we run into balance problems that we realize we need to work on it,” says Dr. Dutta.
While there isn’t much academic research on fitness parks per se, one Finnish study of people aged 65 to 81 found that those who spent time at a fitness park experienced significant improvements in balance, speed and coordination after just three months. There are benefits beyond fitness, too. One is social, creating ways to get older people, who are often socially isolated, together. The other is motivational—having a buddy to exercise with is a proven way to stick with your exercise program.
If that sounds good, check with your local park administration, senior center or, if you’re considering it, retirement community. If no multigenerational fitness parks are available near you, you may want to advocate that one gets built in your neighborhood. Try contacting your local parks and recreation department. Also check out these companies that sell senior-friendly playground equipment—LifeTrail, Triactive America and Greenfields. And if a senior playground pops up nearby, swing by and give it a whirl. Don’t let the young have all the fun!