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Fitness in the fresh air - how to make an exercise trail a success

© playparc GmbH

Happily, it seems that in recent years our society has come to realise the importance of exercise when regard to promoting health and well-being. In view of this growing awareness, many municipal and local authorities have constructed exercise trials in their public spaces to provide local residents with supplementary means of being physically active. These sports offer. exercise trails are basically sensible facilities of a movement friendly infrastructure, which enrich the municipal. Many of these facilities are popular and frequently used; others, however, tend to be deserted and seem to be unable to attract a regular group of users. Why is this? What can local authorities do to ensure their citizens readily accept such facilities?

Of course, it is usually not enough to simply install an exercise trail. Although the corresponding equipment has already been commercially available for years and exercise trails have been common features of the landscape for decades in some countries, the majority of the population in Germany has never encountered such an installation and wouldn't know what to do with it if they did so. When it comes to children's playgrounds, the children will know how to use the pieces of equipment; they will have got their parents, siblings or friends to show them how to use them or will have discovered this themselves through trial and error. This means that a new playground will be spontaneously adopted by its target group. In the case of an exercise trail, the situation is somewhat different; certain aspects need to be taken into account if it is be successful.

 1) Attract as broad a group of potential users as possible

Many exercise trails in the past were designated 'cross-generational fitness facilities' or even 'senior playgrounds'. There is nothing wrong with this, except the fact that it tends to restrict the definition of the potential user group. It should be borne in mind that, in general, the older the potential users are, the more difficult it will be to retain them as active users of the facility. Many senior citizens are simply not used to exercising out of doors and need first to grow accustomed to the idea and learn to overcome any initial timidity. Younger people tend to have fewer reservations in this respect and can more rapidly be recruited as users. When designing an exercise trail, it is thus advisable to ensure that there is equipment providing for exercise at various difficulty levels and that the selection encourages both young and old to be active. It has recently emerged that, in outdoor facilities, callisthenic equipment has proved to be relatively popular. However, the user group is mainly in the range 16 to 30 years of age and predominantly male. It is possible to entice a certain user group if equipment like this is installed and to increase the attraction of a particular area as a result. At the same time, it is important to ensure that those seeking exercise of all genders and ages will find suitable challenges. A site that is popular will often automatically attract other users.


2) Install a wide diversity of high-quality equipment

In order to be familiar with the range of exercise options that can and should be provided, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the science of sport. The way various pieces of training equipment can be used is just as different as the various target groups. It should be ensured that both young and old have the opportunity for as varied types of exercise as possible. By undertaking a survey of the public in advance, it is possible to obtain an idea of what sort of potential user groups there are likely to be, and this will help when it comes to selecting the appropriate equipment. One aspect that shouldn't be forgotten is that equipment can be installed that is attractive enough to draw the attention of and be used by chance passersby - something that cannot be planned in advance. Broad knowledge of what is available is necessary if the required diversity is to be achieved. In addition to standard equipment and the already mentioned callisthenic devices, an area covered with impact-attenuated/EDPM surfacing can be provided for warm-up exercises and bodyweight training together with a small running track. It is also necessary to examine equipment to make sure it does what it is supposed to do. The quality and functioning of a piece of equipment are just as important as the training effect it provides - although there is a vast range of equipment of offer, not all will comply with specific needs. To ensure those seeking exercise, continue to use an exercise trail over the long term, it is essential to make certain that the facility is of high quality. In the past, doubts have been raised as to the actual benefit provided by the use of certain pieces of equipment. It is thus advisable to commission an expert to provide guidance during the planning phase.


3) Involvement of local institutions

Two of the most important factors when it comes to the installation of a fitness trail are communication with and involvement of the potential user groups. The best way to do this is to encourage participation during the planning stage. It may even be possible for a local authority to recruit a local association as an operator of the facility - it can provide the venue for sports events offered by associations, social groups and care institutions. Anyone made familiar with the functioning and use of the facility through membership of such a group or institution will return to use the trail even outside such organised events. Setting up links with such local groups is essential to prevent the risk of the facility becoming abandoned. The older generation, in particular, often requires guidance and supervision before they are willing to take on such a challenge. By means of contact with local associations and groups, and with interested individuals at the earliest possible point in time, the options provided on the trail can be designed to meet the corresponding needs and wishes, ensuring that the facility will continue to be used over the long term.


4) Design, infrastructure and siting 

Modern exercise trails are frequently seen as a contemporary type of fitness trail that used to be called in Germany a 'Trimm Dich-Pfad'. These were popular in the 1970s and took the form of running tracks or hiking trails along which various pieces of exercise equipment were positioned at regular intervals. Some of the new exercise trails copy this approach. But this is often counterproductive. The various exercises offered on a 'Trimm Dich-Pfad' were basically simple in nature - bending the knees, balancing, stretching - meaning that special equipment was very often not required. Those who happened to be using the trail might be encouraged to undertake the exercises. Nowadays, however, training equipment is much more complex and has been specifically designed to provide for certain forms of exercise. Older users often do not wish - or are unable - to cover longer stretches of ground. And many of those deliberately wanting to train wish to move directly from one piece of equipment to the next, without having to first search for what they want to do. In most cases, it is thus expedient to have a central site within the exercise trail that contains all the exercise equipment. Although new trails are often installed in the centre of parks or other open spaces where they can attract attention, it should be taken into consideration that some people feel uneasy about using such facilities because they would be 'on show' as it were. This applies particularly to older people and to women. They don't like the idea of being observed and are happier when they can be active in public without feeling they are drawing attention to themselves. One option would be to provide planting as a screen between the various training stations. To ensure that an exercise trail is popular, it also needs a suitable infrastructure. Nearby should be toilets, drinking water fountains, seating and even lockers - these elements will promote the use of the facility. Many trails installed in public parks have no such surrounding infrastructure and as a result do not attract users. Admittedly, it is not always easy to provide access to such infrastructure so that siting needs to be taken into account when determining where to locate the facility. The provision of appropriate signage that also offers instructions on how to use equipment is also important.

Despite some reservations, exercise trails represent assets that contribute to the sports facility infrastructure that municipal and local authorities can offer and that encourage many people to take exercise in the fresh air. There are a large number of well-used facilities of this kind that demonstrate that it is possible to make such an exercise trial successful. Sadly, it is a little more difficult to achieve this than, for example, in the case of a playground. However, the objective of encouraging more people to take physical exercise is surely important enough to make it necessary to take on the challenges.

For more information on exercise trails, visit the homepage of the German Association of Playground and Leisure Equipment Manufacturers (BSFH) (www.bsfh.info)


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