Outdoor Fitness Equipment: Taking the ‘play’ out of the playground?

Recently there seems to have been an increase in the number of parks that have outdoor ‘gyms’, with more and more community parks sprouting pieces of specialised equipment designed to encourage adults to be active. In theory, these ‘adult playgrounds’ sound like a great idea:

1. They’re free: for anyone put off by the cost of gym memberships or home equipment, free outdoor gyms are a great alternative.

2. They’re outside: perfect for anyone who doesn’t have space at home to workout, or who wants to get out in the fresh air and maybe get some sun (not that we’ve had much of that here in the UK lately).

3. They’re a good exercise reminder: acting as a prompt to anyone walking past that they should maybe get a little more exercise.

4. They’re inexpensive: As far as public health interventions, outdoor gyms are relatively cheap – there’s a one-off payment for the equipment and that’s it – no fees for staff, no printing/advertising costs etc.

BUT, how effective are these outdoor gyms in practice, really? Personally, I think there are a number of reasons why investing public money in outdoor fitness equipment isn’t the best idea:

1. No privacy

For anyone wanting to get fitter/ get in shape, an outdoor gym probably comes a close second to donning a swimsuit in terms of potential for embarrassment. Many people often claim that they dislike gyms because they feel embarrassed about working out in public, so working out in a community park (surrounded by children, teenagers, dog walkers, etc.) would probably not be a good alternative!

2. No instruction

Again, for anyone starting out, these workout spaces provide very little instruction about how to use the equipment. Sure, each piece of kit may come with a sign explaining how to use it and what it’s good for (e.g. cardiovascular conditioning, leg strength, balance etc.) but there’s rarely any information about how to put everything together – for example, how long should you do each exercise for, how many exercises should you do in one session, how often should you do the exercises. This might seem to take the ‘fun’ out of using the equipment, but another barrier to exercise often cited by people is that they don’t know what to do! Providing free equipment is therefore only one half of the solution.

3. They just make no sense!

Okay, so this is my biggest argument against these outdoor ‘gyms’. Most of the ones that I have seen have at least one or two pieces of equipment that are designed to mimic the ‘cardio’ machines found in fitness centres. Now, call me crazy, but surely you have to question the sense of producing specialised outdoor equipment that mimics gym equipment…which was itself originally designed to mimic the kind of activities that people do outdoors! For example:

  • An outdoor ‘treadmill’ (i.e. steel rollers that you ‘run’ on) mimics an indoor treadmill which mimics walking or running!
  • An outdoor stationary bike mimics an indoor stationary bike which mimics cycling!
  • An ‘air walker’ mimics the beloved cross-trainer which mimics…well, I never really have managed to figure out what movement a cross-trainer is designed to imitate!

I mean, come on! You’re in a PARK! If you want to encourage people to excise, what about providing them with actual bikes? Or setting up a walking or running group? Or even a setting up a frisbee golf course?!

Now, okay, some of you may agree that providing outdoor cardio equipment might not be the best idea, but surely there’s a place for outdoor resistance machines like a shoulder press, chest press or leg press?

Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever come across any outdoor resistance machines, but on the whole they actually offer very little actual ‘resistance’, mainly because it’s tricky to provide an adjustable outdoor machine which won’t rust excessively or need regular maintenance, but also because it’s generally considered unsafe to provide heavy weights to the (unsupervised) general public. So, given that the ‘resistance’ machines don’t actually offer much resistance, why not just encourage people to use their own bodyweight instead:

  • Chest Press? —-> Why not a push up?
  • Shoulder Press?  —–>Why not a pike push up?
  • Leg Press?  —–> Why not a squat?

The same goes for machines like the ‘twist plate’ that are designed to improve hip mobility – what about good, old-fashioned hip circles? Or multi-planar lunges?

The solution?

I really do appreciate the councils are genuinely trying to encourage people to be more physically active and I definitely think that money invested in physical activity promotion / interventions could bring significant savings in terms of NHS costs. However, I think that money spent on outdoor cardio equipment and resistance machines is just a waste of resources. But what’s the alternative?

Personally, I would love to see some money spent on creating outdoor ‘gyms’ for adults which not only provide areas and advice on bodyweight exercises, but that also put the ‘play’ back into ‘playgrounds’ with balance beams, monkey bars, cargo nets and zip wires!

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