Taking steps toward physical fitness can happen anywhere, and cities across the nation are capitalizing on that notion. Gone are the days of having to get an expensive gym membership or learn to use confusing equipment — residents are able to work out in their own backyards, with outdoor fitness facilities in parks, along trails and at other community-centered spaces.
Once reserved for year-round warm states, outdoor fitness equipment is now a trend sweeping across America regardless of climate and accessible to people regardless of ability. A driving force behind this widespread implementation of outdoor fitness facilities is the National Fitness Campaign.
Founded nearly 40 years ago on the premise of helping people across the country lead more healthy and active lives, the NFC has since partnered with more than 4,000 cities and schools to convert public spaces into community fitness hubs anchored by the company’s Fitness Court.
Through partnerships with local governments and colleges across the nation, the Fitness Court is not only an opportunity to exercise more, it’s a social experience that can be enjoyed by all.
“Our campaign is designed to empower cities to take action and get community members active and healthy by bringing our Fitness Courts to public spaces to make fitness fun, free and accessible to all,” said NFC Founder Mitch Menaged.
Following a mantra of “7 minute, 7 movement” fitness, the courts are designed to allow users to navigate the system themselves, to host group fitness classes or to use an app to follow along. The equipment is designed to be inclusive to all regardless of ability, and the design of the court is mirrored across the country. NFC works with local changemakers to choose locations.
“Our main task is to identify leadership in cities and colleges that see fitness as a priority and support them,” Menaged said. “We work almost exclusively with mayors, city managers, parks directors, coaches and the likes to build partnerships with governmental organizations and colleges to bring health and fitness to communities everywhere.”
Leaders of communities across the nation see the value in physical fitness, and some have begun implementing their own versions of Fitness Courts in their neighborhoods.
Kim Lehto, coordinator of Healthy St. Pete in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the city long ago started encouraging outdoor fitness with fitness stations featuring single pieces of equipment situated along walking paths — that is, until recently.
“In our park system, we saw the exercise pieces were linear and spread out along a trail. It was very disjointed and we found that people didn’t utilize them,” she said. “They felt unsafe, they wanted more direction and they expressed interest in having a centralized area to do all their exercising in one place.”
After gathering that feedback, Lehto’s team went to work. The city now boasts multiple exercise zones, featuring a variety of weight-bearing equipment in public spaces across neighborhoods.
“We found that once we started creating denoted fitness areas, more people were using them than they were previously. They would then cap off their workout with a walk or run along the trails or in the park,” Lehto said.
The exercise zones are strategically placed in high traffic areas that already lend themselves to community gatherings and family activities. Often found in neighborhood parks and along popular trails, Lehto said the placement of the zones has been a hit.
“We tend to place the zones near playgrounds so we get joint use of the land and there’s something there for all members of the family,” she said. “The community loves them and we get requests for more in parks that don’t yet have them. When I drive by the one nearest my house, I see it in use regardless of the time of day.”
Healthy St. Pete has leveraged the creation of the exercise zones to bring community members together — volunteer trainers from local gyms host classes to show people how to use the equipment to build a comprehensive workout, and to demonstrate the modifications for people of all abilities and fitness levels.
In the future, the city has plans to expand its exercise zones to include hydration stations.
The impact of the exercise zones has been threefold, according to Lehto.
“For minimal cost and low maintenance and overhead, you’re able to implement a change in a neighborhood that not only promotes physical fitness, but increases the social culture of that neighborhood. People are meeting friends and family, being healthy and getting outdoors,” she said. “The crossover effect we’ve seen has been amazing. Getting people outside also highlights the wonderful opportunities the local parks have to offer and builds a culture of health for the city that will continue on.”