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Fitness facilities in the urban environment

By Jobst Seeger, landscape architect

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In Germany fitness equipment was once found only in fitness studios. The boom got underway in the 1980s, when they were jokingly referred to as "muscle factories", since when such facilities have grown into a pillar of the economy with around 7.6 million members in 2011 (Wikipedia). In all these facilities training takes place in rooms of different sizes and the offering has been expanded to include courses with specific training impacts. But doesn't it make more sense to train outdoors in all weathers? To train, as is common practice with many other sports, outdoors in the wind and rain?

At this point we need to go back in time again. In the 1970s (Wikipedia) the first keep-fit trails were established, a genuine popular movement started in March 1970 by the German Sports Association. The backdrop to this movement were concerns very familiar to us but which are now more important than ever: the need to improve health and reduce obesity, in short to tackle all the affluent society's negative impacts on health. After the 1972 Olympics there was a real fitness boom, with an explosion in the construction of keep-fit trails in German forests and green spaces. In the 1990s this boom was superseded by the growth in fitness studios, which were sprouting up everywhere. The arguments are the same.

As people's yearning to pursue outdoor activities has increased so too has the interest in pursuing sport outside gyms, fitness studios or swimming pools. A positive secondary effect of training outside buildings is the influence of changing weather and the associated enhancement of the body's defences.

One shortcoming of keep-fit trails was that they were often built along forest trails. In autumn and winter these trails became very difficult to use, which meant the keep-fit facilities were underused. Eventually the keep-fit trail popular movement largely petered out. Another contributory factor, however, was the failure to adequately maintain the equipment, which was mostly constructed from untreated wood and therefore quickly deteriorated.

So as we can see, outdoor fitness facilities are nothing new but rather a relaunch of the once popular keep-fit trails with a contemporary concept and a modern strategy. The aim is to satisfy the desire of large sections of the population for exercise spaces outside buildings. There is plenty of evidence from southern European countries in particular that such facilities work. Here in Germany China is often cited as the exemplar in this movement. There fitness equipment is to be found on the street, on a large scale in parks and also on business premises. It should be pointed out here, however, that far greater importance is attached to activities outside buildings in China, where there is also far less vandalism. Older people in particular like to meet in parks to dance, exercise and make music, and also to play games.

Back to Germany. In 2008 the green spaces department of the city of Frankfurt took note of people's interest in outdoor activity and conducted a survey on the topic in conjunction with Geisenheim University. One of the aims of this study was to establish what senior citizens thought of existing fitness courses. Another was to acquire a broader knowledge base in relation to the senior citizen-friendly design of open spaces. The study looked at several fitness facilities in Germany, whose features varied, with interviews conducted on site with the aim of finding out about the motivations and experiences of users.

In 2009 the Kriftel-based Jobst Seeger landscape architects office was commissioned by Frankfurt's green spaces department to plan a senior-citizen friendly fitness facility in a Frankfurt park. Based on the green spaces department's experiences with a facility in the district of Schwanheim and another in the city's Huth park, a concept was to be developed for fitness facilities that took into account the Geisenheim study. This concept was to be the template for facilities throughout the metropolitan area.

Since all previous projects and also the study had taken place without sports medical advice, we called on the services of a physiotherapist specialising in mobilisation and rehabilitation for and with senior citizens. She could also draw on her experience in fitness studios, which was so extensive that she was already familiar with the equipment of fitness studios.

The first job was to find a location for the facility. The green spaces department had already located a site, a long green strip of land that formed a boundary between the district of Bornheim and the city ice rink. More difficult was deciding where precisely to locate the facility in this green space. Even though the project didn't meet all the Geisenheim study criteria, time has shown the decision to locate the facility on an open site with shade-giving trees to be the correct one.

Other key factors were barrier-free access to the equipment, a large area embellished with planted areas and the incorporation of motivators. Motivators are people who through their work in clubs and senior citizens' homes and residences can bring along a group of people who will regularly use the fitness facility. This function can also be performed by physiotherapists, doctors, team leaders in companies and business heads. These individuals must be in contact with people who are potential users of such a facility. They are responsible for encouraging initial use of a fitness facility once it has been built, when as many people as possible must incorporate it into their daily routine.

The choice of equipment for the facility in question means it is focused on senior citizens, and more specifically on senior citizens who have had little contact with fitness equipment during their lives. We call such facilities generation-specific facilities. The important thing is to create an offering that can be used by everyone and which specifically caters for the needs of people who haven't been training in fitness studios for ten years. This is why items of equipment were selected that only permit guided movements. Even increasing the resistance is avoided so that there is a stronger focus on mobilisation and less emphasis on building strength. This course enhances health by enabling users to train for longer with less weight and without false muscle development. A secondary effect of the absence of resistance adjustment is that the facility is less attractive to younger people, who like to attain large and clearly defined muscles.

For groups of people with experience in training with equipment there is plenty of equipment on the market for sit-ups, side-ups and other similar exercises. Facilities with such equipment are also easier to build and depending on the specific target group it may be possible to do so without anchors. However, a stable and quick-drying base should always be placed under the equipment. We call such facilities cross-generational facilities.

Cross-generational play equipment is a variant of cross-generational facilities. This is play equipment which, unlike fitness equipment, must comply with the corresponding DIN (German Standards Institute) EN 1176 standards. Such equipment can be smoothly incorporated into playgrounds and is attractive to both grandparents and grandchildren. Here the focus is on playful movements, mobilisation, the enhancement of motor skills and social elements. The other aspects of fitness philosophy are of secondary importance.

When selecting such equipment attention should be paid to quality as well as physiological aspects. Unlike in China, vandalism is a major issue in our parks. But it isn't the only problem ‒ intensive use also takes a toll on bearings and moving parts. As in other market segments, material and production quality are generally reflected in prices. For permanently installed outdoor fitness equipment specific standards have been drawn up, namely DIN 79000:2012-05 and DIN 16630:2014-01. These set a minimum requirement and standardise the safety requirements and testing procedures for such equipment. As well as making planning more reliable for the builder they also raise general safety levels for the user. Also essential for the sustainability of a facility are the viewing and selection of specific equipment.

To answer the question asked at the beginning of this piece, yes, joggers, Nordic walkers, cyclists and many walkers take advantage of the opportunity to train in the open air on fitness equipment in an urban green space. One of the chief reasons the facility described in Frankfurt's Bornheim district has proved so successful is because it is situated on a link route between the residential district of Bornheim and the Ostpark public park. Sports enthusiasts frequently stop to use the fitness equipment before continuing on their way while Bornheim residents also come to the facility specifically in order to train. Finally, all facilities can be used by anyone and it is possible to focus on specific groups of people through the selection of equipment.

 

Photo: Eibe

 

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