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15.10.2019 - Ausgabe: 5/2019

Physical activity at any time and anywhere – with and without fitness devices

By Ariane Hölscher (Kreative Bewegung - active creativity) and Mareike Thies, Bettina Oppermann (University of Hanover)

© Ariane Hölscher

The unsuccessful struggle against the "lack of physical activity" – “We should exercise more“.  “We have to do more sports.“ – Insufficient physical activity is a problem which has affected our society [1]already for decades. And also for decades attempts have been made to tackle this problem by, for instance, using encouragements such as "we should" or "we must" and by launching appeals, health campaigns and programmes, including measures in green open spaces. These include, for instance, the setting-up of classical sports facilities as well as installing horizontal bars, fitness and Calesthenics devices as is happening at the moment in parks and open green spaces. Usually they are equipped with instructions on how to do the different exercises and which muscle groups will be strengthened. However, what all these measures have in common is that the incentives for exercise are predefined by the health insurance companies, health experts, planners, device manufacturers and app designers. The broad masses, however, still don't get more exercise. Why is that? And which role does the design of open spaces play in this context?


Can problems be transformed into devices?

It was in the 1990s when the sociologist and strollologist Lucius Burkhardt observed the following: "A problem is transformed into a building"[2] What he meant was that a complex and long-term problem (such as traffic noise) is converted into a feasible solution, a project comprehensible or even palpable for everybody, which can be inaugurated in the foreseeable future (a tunnel, for instance). Analogous to that one might say that the complex problem of insufficient physical activity may be solved by creating a specific sports device. However, it might happen that the actual root cause of the problem moves into the background. The structural solution is attractive, not only because it is so wonderfully concrete and can be realised and implemented in a relatively short period of time. A building can easily be photographed which allows the persons in charge to present themselves as an excellent solution finder or an effective politician. That is how a problem is transformed into a sports device. And as we love to chill and relax there will also be a piece of furniture right next to the sports device inviting to have a rest. Can that work?


Devices can nudge us towards more exercise ...

Yes, it is a matter of fact that furniture and devices can give us an impulse to become physically active, that is to say to give us the little nudge which we evidently need. In their book called    "Nudge, - how to stimulate smart decisions" [3]authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein support the hypothesis that it is the environment which is somehow decisive on whether we become active or not. An often-quoted example are the sweets on the supermarket shelf. We will only readily reach for them when they are placed at eye-level. The spatial form and hence the spatial design have a decisive influence on the question, if at all, how and where we are moving, always depending on the type of device and often in a very specific predefined way. 


...just like unfurnished open spaces

At the same time the question arises on how much "explicit" prompting we need in the form of specific devices for specific physical activities. If the shape of our environment as it is "presented" to us has a general influence on how    active we become in everyday life, it could also be a hill, a meadow or a path which will motivate us to exercise. A tree trunk lying on the ground, for instance, kerbs or even the banding of paving might attract us to balancing on them. An open meadow could invite to just set off and run or to roll in the grass. Just like wide paths represent an environment which encourages to walking rather than narrow pavements with cars tightly parked.


"May" instead of "Must"? - Joy of movement instead of insufficient physical activity

Although human beings are on the one hand prone to "saving" energy, that is to say the respective motion energy, they need, on the other hand, physical activity. Apart from the necessity to practise sports to stay fit and well, we have an innate urge and desire to move. The pure physical activity without any specific purpose as an expression of joyful living, spirit of discovery and curiosity is a fundamental human need. That is to say "wanting" to become physically active instead of "having to" become physically active.    This is the only explanation for age-old forms of exercise, such as dancing and playing. However, we seem to have trained down this natural need to move. One factor which, inter alia, plays a role here, is the early constraint of having to sit quietly during school lessons and the higher reputation of intellectual work in our society compared to manual labour, but also the pre-structuring and channelling of physical activity within certain time frames (such as sports lessons, training hours), spaces (sports facilities, devices) and forms of movement (sport disciplines).

Physical activity is much more than just sports (=specifically pre-structured) activity. Physical activity means learning, experiencing, expressing oneself, moving forward in the true sense of the word. The freedom to act, independence and participation are essential results of a broad repertoire of physical activity, risk competence and the individual self-consciousness

If, however, there is an ever-growing number of “consumable“ exercise possibilities – while at the same time meadows, climbing trees, river banks with flat stones and inviting walkway connections are becoming increasingly scarce, we could well lose the ability to exercise and become physically active off our own bat, “just for fun“ and because physical activity is creative expression or playful competition. However, to realise this the corresponding free spaces are needed.


Four possibilities to design exercise-friendly open spaces

In urban spaces where manifold functions and diverging claims on utilisation are paramount, such "free open spaces for free exercise“ are rather scarce. It is therefore all the more important to maintain the existing space and to redesign those areas by particularly focusing on everyday life exercise. However, the diverging claims on utilisation within limited urban spaces, hardly allow sufficient spaces for free movement. Thus explicitly designed exercise areas and fitness devices do have their legitimation here. There are four different options which can either be distinguished or combined: 

  1. Benefiting from the natural topographical morphology for doing exercise. Exercise promotion in Hanover varies from the offerings of Stuttgart. Flat meadows, river banks with stones or city forests, forgotten tree stumps offer as many possibilities for physical activity as hills, stairs and steep ascents. Each location makes us move in its own way.
  2. Modelled terrain in selected areas.
     It is too expensive to build a flat sports field in a narrow valley area and very demanding to build mounds for mountain-bike riding or skating in lowlands. Nevertheless, such activity areas are well received and are thus clearly justifiable as specific measures. 
  3. Thinking about and benefitting from different types of open spaces for different types of exercise.
    Parks and city forests are “classical open spaces for leisure time activities“, such as jogging, cycling and walking, which are quite normal activities here. But open spaces and squares as well as park spaces may also be scopes for games and more creative types of exercise and physical activities. A friendly invitation “Please step on the grass“ can be a little nudge as much as signs or apps can help to rediscover one’s joy to move freely, if these offerings are designed in an attractive way. Instead of too strictly pre-structured physical activities, adequate forms of communication, such as those represented here, may potentially inspire and motivate individuals to find out themselves.
     In other open spaces, such as cemeteries and historic gardens the idea of exercising etiquette is absolutely out of question. While strolls and other quiet movements are allowed, noisy skating or mountain-bike riding is incompatible with their specific atmosphere. Also roads, especially straight ones, are potential spaces for movement and physical activities. Inviting and walk-through designed walkway connections with trees and wide paths are the simplest, though often underestimated offerings, which allow not only everyday life exercise but also to appreciate it again.  However, this is only possible, if the free-flowing urban traffic and the number of parked cars will be restricted. Why not make the pedestrian accessibility a hard selection criterion for the refurbishment of squares and the redevelopment of streets?
  4. Play equipment and sports devices                                                                        As much as urban densification requires playgrounds to complement (not to substitute) existing areas by spaces for free playing, freely accessible fitness facilities provide youngsters, adults and senior citizens with space and inspiration for joint exercise and game. Both multi-functional devices for manifold, free exercising options and mono-functional offerings which fulfil specific needs have their justification. Not each facility must offer both options. However, the specific local conditions are paramount against the background of the general urban offer.  
  5. Four approaches to design exercise-friendly open spaces:

Natural terrain

Modelled terrain

Designed open spaces

Animated devices

The requirements and our repertoire for physical activity result from the conditions of our environment. The place where we grew up "is still working in us".

It is especially the "exercise-encouraging" landscapes which can be designed in a detailed manner. The exercise practiced within these spaces becomes a key issue by experiencing landscape with all senses. 

There is a wide range of different types of open spaces which should be analysed and discussed regarding their different movement qualities.

When designing modern devices, both strict security requirements and permanent maintenance must be taken into account. Modern devices meet the taste of the time and of specific target groups.

Lowlands set other impulses than hilly areas do. However, the relevant knowledge of landscape architects and supporters of physical activity has so far not been taken into account in a considerable way.

The construction and maintenance of such created landscapes require an appropriated budget. Thus, a political debate is necessary to decide where and which kind of exercise areas have to be established at the expense of other measures.

Special attention must be paid to street areas, paths and connecting areas. Until now, the prioritisation of the space-consuming car traffic has very often pushed back human powered forms of mobility.

Not all of the currently "trendy" devices requested at short notice are sustainable investments. The life cycle of both the "hype" device and the "slow performers in open spaces" must be observed and looked at.


We need a diverse culture of physical activity

It is therefore obvious that such a complex phenomenon as human physical activity also needs to be taken into consideration in an equally complex manner.

The design of open spaces for free exercise – including, in particular, street areas - makes an essential contribution, or in other words provides the foundation for physical activity. But this is not enough.

It is only the direct physical contact with the environment which enables us to become aware of the spatial conditions[5]. Thus, in the education of children, special attention must be paid to physical activity from early childhood on. We need more investments for the promotion of the development of free physical activity instead of focusing on standardised and regulated sports disciplines, facilities or competitive sports. 

"Nudges for more physical activity" are not just of material nature: communication and (figurative) language are of fundamental importance.  The new media enable us to come together for joint movement which is one of the strongest and joyful occasions for physical activity and playing. Although sports apps, for instance, may encourage physical activity, they won’t be necessary if we learn again to exercise in a free and joyful way.  

However, it is a general point that the way in which we communicate about physical activity and the relevant "movement problems" with others, our behaviour and relation towards free and joyful exercise will be shaped.  In other words: each word moves, or not.



[1] World Health Organization WHO (2018): worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1.9 million participants, Lancet Glob Health 2018; 6: e1077–86Published Online, September 4, 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(18)30357-7

[2] Burckhardt, Lucius (1991): A problem is transformed into a building– the usual standard political and professional decision-making procedure , in: Institut für Grundlagen der Planung, Universität Stuttgart, Symposiumsbericht, Eigen Verlag Stuttgart, S. 39-43 (pp. 39-43 of the symposium files, in-house publication of the Institute, Stuttgart, Germany)

[3] Thaler, Richard, H.; Sunstein, Cass R. Budge (2014): How to stimulate smart decisions, published by Ullstein Verlag, Berlin. 4th edition

[4] Gebhard, Ulrich (2016): The relationship between personality and landscape. Pp 169-184. In: Gebhard, Ulrich; Kistemann, Thomas (Publishers): Landscape, Identity und Health - The concept of therapeutic landscapes, published by Springer-Fachmedien, Wiesbaden, Germany. 

[5] Weizäcker, Viktor von (published work in 1997): Der Gestaltkreis, Theorie der Einheit von Wahrnehmen und Bewegen (*A theory based on the unity of perception and physical activity). Collected writings: contributions from 1931 to 1948, published by Suhrkamp-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany).

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