Physical activity needs and implications
With the ongoing adult obesity epidemic a clear health priority, we knew that an important research focus had to be on designing spaces that got adults outside and active. Despite the proven benefits of physical activity, only about 30% of adult Americans report they get regular physical activity during their leisure time—and about 40% of Americans say they get none at all. In a checkup of the nation’s health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that fewer than two in 10 Americans get the recommended levels of regular exercise. Further, CDC data shows that about 70% of adults over the age of 20 are overweight, with approximately 35% classified as obese.
Besides the health implications, sedentary behavior contributes to complications and limitations in performing daily tasks. Regular exercise and fitness makes our day-to-day activities easier and more enjoyable. To accomplish this, the different components of fitness need to be addressed in a comprehensive exercise plan.
We engaged a network of scholars across several disciplines to ensure our approach to outdoor fitness was a comprehensive one. Dr. Michael Suk, M.D., J.D., MPH, FACS, is the Chairman of Orthopaedic Surgery at Geisinger Health System in Danville, PA. Dr. Gary Liguori is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the Dean of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Thom McKenzie is Emeritus Professor of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University and former Adjunct Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego. Together with this respected team, PlayCore was able to identify the necessary elements to ensure an outdoor adult fitness park offers a well-rounded workout for adults of all fitness levels and abilities, as well as develop intentional strategies for marketing, programming, and measuring outcomes.
The health benefits of outdoor exercise
It is widely accepted that being outdoors often is good for people. Several studies have shown additional benefits to outdoor vs. indoor exercise, including improved mental wellbeing and physiological health, along with emerging evidence of benefits at the physiological, psychological, and social levels, which suggests that outdoor exercise is important for disease prevention. In addition, evidence shows that people who partake in outdoor exercise may improve adherence rates to regular exercise, thereby driving positive health behavior change.
Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments has been associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, depression, and increased energy. Studies indicate people who exercise outdoors enjoy their activity more and derive a greater level of satisfaction; this is important given that activity levels are so strongly influenced by the levels of enjoyment. Outdoor exercisers typically report greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.
Aligning equipment and exercises to health benefits and total body fitness
Although the components of fitness are grouped as either health-related or skill-related, there is considerable crossover in both training and application. Aerobic exercise helps build cardiorespiratory endurance, which not only makes daily tasks like shopping easier, it also helps to make improvements in speed and power more likely. Improving body composition can also improve speed, agility, balance, and overall sports performance. Increases in agility, coordination, balance, and power help athletes perform at their peak and older individuals avoid falls. Improved flexibility has similar dual benefits, as it makes reaching down to pick up a dropped item easier, but can also reduce sport injury.
While an indoor gym offers a wealth of choices to promote physical fitness, an outdoor space typically has between 6-20 pieces of equipment, so ensuring those pieces offer a well-rounded workout is critical to the space being relevant and a valid fitness solution. Multiple studies have shown a variety of increased benefits of outdoor exercise and new innovations are engaging adults of all abilities through creative Outdoor Adult Fitness Park initiatives across the U.S. In order to reap maximum health benefits, a fitness routine must contain a variety of elements, each offering specific results for overall health. While gymnasiums offer dozens of equipment choices, an outdoor fitness park contains, on average, between 8-15 pieces of equipment, so making the right choices is critical to providing a meaningful, total body workout. By including equipment that offers a variety of aerobic, muscle/strength, core, and balance elements, an Outdoor Adult Fitness park can provide a well-rounded fitness routine that promotes health improvement and wellness. Research also identified other important aspects to promote usage and adherence.
The guidebook that resulted from our research partnership overviews some of the many compelling evidence based benefits of outdoor exercise. This includes improved psychological and physiological health, disease prevention, improved adherence to regular exercise, decreased tension and depression, increased energy, greater satisfaction levels, and access to green environments. It provides design considerations, ideas for implementation and sustainability, programming tops, and ideas for tracking and reporting outcomes.
Because of this holistic approach, communities working with us to create outdoor adult fitness spaces designed by utilizing this research are eligible for the National Demonstration Site Award program.