Hit the (outdoor) gym: a new era of fitness trails

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. he 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.

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