Being active is key for people’s physical, mental health, and overall well-being, but getting people to be active is a real challenge. The good news is that doing the last couple of years, a new fitness trend has spread in cities all around the world, which makes workout accessible to everybody: outdoor gyms. Today, there are more than 600,000 pieces of outdoor equipment in China alone. In Copenhagen (Denmark), which is a city with a little less than 600,000 inhabitants, one can find more than 60 places with training equipment.
Just like a regular gym, outdoor gyms offer a wide range of equipment, allowing people to try out different workout activities in the fresh air. Several playground manufacturers, like KOMPAN, have diversified their product range and now also specialise in fitness equipment. Because of their colours, materials, aesthetics and the fact that many of them are located next to playgrounds, outdoor gyms are often called “adult playgrounds”.
Training outside has grown increasingly popular within the last years and the success of outdoor gyms is a testimony of that. But why is it that modern cities are investing in these pieces of equipment? What kind of impact do they seek to make? And, how can we leverage those facilities so they become the backbone of active societies?
Nudging people to live active lives
The outdoor gym is now a worldwide phenomenon. Exercising outdoor became especially popular after the Chinese government launched a fitness campaign prior to the Summer Olympics in 2008. Adult playgrounds were placed in parks and on beaches, initially in order to reach the ageing population. Other governments soon realised the benefits of providing such training facilities free of charge, as accessibility and price are the main barriers for people who want to exercise.
The rationale for government-funded outdoor gyms has its roots in The Nudge Theory. The main idea behind this concept is that subtle changes in government policy can incentivise people to do things, which are in their own interest, without actually giving them direct orders to do so.
Mere recommendations are not enough though. In Denmark for example, where the Health Authority advises adults to exercise 30 minutes every day, only 29% of Danes between 18 and 65 exercise more than four hours a week. This is where outdoor gyms get into the picture.
They nudge individuals to be more active because of their location and accessibility. They are placed in areas with a lot of pedestrian traffic, so people can spin, jump or strength train during a break or on their way to the local grocery shop. The equipment is also very often located next to playgrounds, so parents can exercise while the children play (hence building a role model for the kids). Putting the outdoor gym ‘in the way’ has the potential to attract new people, to create regular users and to engage many different target groups to exercise. This is the goal of the recent outdoor fitness equipment in Sundby park in Copenhagen, where the facility aims to meet the needs not only of local inhabitants, but also local schools and sports’ associations. Key actors from these organisations now have the option to receive training in order to be able to help the students or members of their associations to use the equipment.
Choosing the right spot for an outdoor gym is key for its success. In order to best locate fitness stations, cities like San Antonio (Texas) or Miami-Dade County (Florida) have used health data maps and maps about communities’ income so that they could target the desired communities. Other data maps could be explored if one wanted to reach specific target groups. In Denmark, for example, teenage girls are in the high-risk group of inactivity-related health problems. Gathering data to map their use of the city could be a way to better understand the geography of their everyday life and would be a step towards addressing the issue.
When adult playgrounds bring people together
Most outdoor gyms are located in public spaces and aim to get all ages and abilities to exercise. As a consequence, they are built in order to accommodate anyone from the regular runners to out-of-shape people, teenagers or seniors. That is not to say that all adult playgrounds answer the needs of all those groups, but rather that different solutions can be implemented in order to answer people’s different needs.
While the first outdoor gyms primarily offered pull-up bars and other static elements, the most recent equipment now also focus on improving flexibility, balance or strengthen cardiovascular health. Though the main goal for cities that implement such facilities is to improve urban dwellers’ fitness, creating areas for multigenerational use can have the side effect of bringing people from different groups together. This aspect of the gym can have significant implications for segments of the population which are at risk of isolation, such as the elderly. In Taiwan, a qualitative study with 55 seniors showed that the use of outdoor fitness equipment made older adults form social ties with neighbours. The persons who participated in the study also expressed improvement in their mood and some of them even developed new friendships through exercising.
In order to bring people together, the most innovative solutions do not only focus on adding new facilities, they think critically about how to serve the needs of the different groups of people they want to gather. In this regard, they mirror recent projects where nursing homes and childcare centers come under the same roof. One can also compare it to the initiative started by the retirement home Humanitas, in Deventer (Netherlands), where a couple of college students get free housing accommodation in exchange of spending time with the residents. Those initiatives are based on a body of research that documents the benefits of intergenerational programming (read more about the topic in this article).
Looking ahead: Fitness 2.0
Outdoor gyms are free, placed where people need them and most of them are accessible 24/7. Sometimes, they are even covered so people can exercise without getting too wet in case of rain. Being active outside also has greater health benefits than indoor activity. Research shows that being active outside improves your self-esteem, energy, and pleasure, and decreases depression, tension and tiredness far more than light activity indoors does. The participants in the study were also more likely to repeat the outdoor activity than the ones indoor. Another surprising benefit of exercising outside is that exposure to plants and trees can improve your immune system. So why still go to a traditional fitness center?
Getting access to a trainer, a customised program with an opportunity for follow-ups and the class programming that indoor gyms offer is surely part of the reason. However, the sports industry also gets disrupted by digital solutions, which have the potential to further improve the outdoor gym experience.
In Denmark, the fitness concept GreenFIT is a great example of that. It uses covered outdoor training pavilions as a base while providing an app, where users can choose different options, such as personal training with customised follow-ups, group training, health check or even bootcamp activities, inspired by military training. The app seeks to provide the social dimension that outdoor training may miss by giving the users access to a trainer on-demand and the possibility to meet up with others to exercise. The service advertises itself as a way for trainers to get extra work and users can pay for classes through the app. The growing number of such personal training apps only highlights that this is an increasing trend. With a greater number of Danes exercising outdoor, a clear professionalisation of fitness training and the rise of the gig economy, such services surely seem promising.
Adding this digital layer to the outdoor gym may also contribute to changes in people’s relations to their sports associations. Being part of such organisations is something deeply rooted in the Danish culture. The Sports Confederation of Denmark (DIF) counts for example nearly 2 million members. However, this is changing with the youngest generation seeking more flexibility and more opportunities for spontaneous offers. In this regard, adding a digital layer to outdoor gyms, as exemplified earlier, could be a way to rethink the whole culture about sports’ associations and design an offer that matches better the young generation’s expectations.
The future of outdoor training looks promising. Not only can it contribute to more active lifestyles but, if implemented thoughtfully, it can also play a role in strengthening local communities. Adding a digital layer to physical infrastructures is key to that and, in Denmark at least, this could be a way to modernise sports’ associations and start attracting young people again to these organisations.
Caroline F. Hansen & Marie Beha
Marie Beha holds a Master’s degree in European Ethnology (University of Copenhagen and University of Amsterdam). She focuses on the cultural processes of everyday life — especially in relation to health promotion and environmental sustainability.
Caroline F. Hansen has a background in urban studies (London School of Economics & La Sorbonne). She is a former consultant at the crossroad between urban studies and innovation and she works now on transforming these ideas into solutions for cities.