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20.06.2011 - Ausgabe: 3/2011

“Gemma raus!” – Let’s go outside!

by DI Rita Mayrhofer, Mag. Barbara Kolb, Ass. Prof. Mag. Dr. Rosa Diketmüller, DI Heide Studer


For a number of years, in Germany and in Austria, the phenomenon has been ob-served - special equipment for adults is being installed in parks. Originating from China - where physical activity in public areas has long been a tradition - so-called fitness parks are now being built in Europe too.

Fitness obstacle course in Vienna

In Vienna, since 2007, six parks or urban open spaces with fitness obstacle courses were fitted out by three different manufacturers and advertised under the motto generation parks. The goal is to encourage adults, particularly people over the age of 50, to exercise more with these free-of-charge, and generally accessible, facilities. Basically these facilities meet growing demands, and international studies on the activities and exercise patterns of older people show that the current 60+ generation mainly exercises in a self-organised fashion.

A research and activation project

In the project “Gemma raus!” http://gemmaraus.univie.ac.at, which is being imple-mented from December 2009 to October 2011 in Vienna, there is currently research being conducted into the extent to which fitness parks represent an opportunity to support self-organised exercise activities of older people and how the public space can be designed optimally to cater for this. For this purpose, sports scientists and landscape planners are working together to achieve synergy effects between the different expertises. They are pursuing a setting-oriented, participatory and empowering approach, where possible existing, individual, infrastructural barriers preventing the independent use of fitness parks should be detected and, where possible, reduced.
In the first step, in the summer of 2010, a team of older people tested and evaluated four of the courses. Following on from this, in autumn 2010, further training opportunities for multipliers were offered. In May 2011, supervision facilities were established and advertised in a selected park. Experiences of the Wiener Arbeiter Turnverein (WAT) in relation to their project “Betreutes animiertes Bewegen” (supervised animated exercise) in another fitness park are spilling into the research findings.
The observation of the park over two years gives information on the actual visitor profile of the fitness parks at different times. In addition, the exchange of results with Prof. Grit Hottenträger, FH Wiesbaden, enabled a comparison study of fitness parks in Germany.

Who is or is not using the fitness obstacle course?

It showed that people over 50 are happy with all facilities which have been designed for their age group. However, it shows that the members of these generations hardly use the equipment. The equipment is currently used more by children, occasionally by teenagers and young adults. The children use the equipment, in part, intensively and explore every avenue of use, for teenagers and adults trying and testing the equipment out is more at the forefront. Only very few people use the equipment for training, and few attend regularly.
There are various reasons for this. There has never been any tradition of adult exer-cise in public parks in Vienna. This inhibition threshold is particularly greater for older adults. They are, in fact, very much interested in serious exercise and some exercise regularly in different forms. However, they don’t want to make a public display of themselves. Therefore, many of them are deterred, or even upset, if the fitness facilities are associated with playing, as was often the case when the courses were advertised as ‘playgrounds for senior citizens’ in German-speaking countries.

Facilities especially for the 50+ generations

The presumption that older people would increasingly use exercise facilities near where they reside has not been confirmed. For most over 50-year-olds, an attractive park design and good public transport connections to the facilities are more important than the immediate proximity. They are mobile and accustomed to exercising in the town, therefore they link the visit to the fitness park to going on an excursion or doing errands. However, the park shouldn’t be further than a 15 minute walk or drive away, and it should be easily accessible.
For the elderly, however, it is important that they find facilities really close to where they reside. However, in this instance, it was proven that public areas are not very suited. They prefer a protected environment, such as the garden of the nursing home or indoors. It also transpired to be a hindrance if the equipment offered was tailored too much to people over 70. As most people do not like to fall into the “old” category, they are not afraid of using courses which are tailored to these age groups, although they actually appreciate the special equipment.

Generation-spanning exercise

According to our results, for the most part, the intended generation-spanning usage transpired not to be goal-directed. If, for example, grandparents seek out a fitness trail together with their grandchildren, then the activity of the adults is mostly limited to supporting the children and showing them how to use it. Only in rare cases do adults train alongside the children. As a rule, they arrange their activities in line with children’s requirements, as it is their job to take care of them. The adults’ activities are just short-term and characterised by interruptions.

Environment and instructions

The tests have shown that many people of older generations appreciate being active in a group. They enjoy contact and the chance to exchange information. In the group it is easier to “conquer” the equipment and try out unusual things. And it was shown that professional instructions represent good support to reduce inhibitions and offer encouragement. Trying out something new.
The accompanying measures and the environment of the park play a big part. Older adults place much importance on the good condition of the equipment and on maintained park areas. They appreciate the availability of tables and benches; they need protection from the sun, drinking water fountains and a clean WC close by. If these provisions are lacking, it deters them or makes it impossible for many to par-ticipate.
A very legible caption for the equipment in sufficiently large font size, such as at eye-level for adults, with descriptive instructions on the exercises, complemented by pictograms and details on the correct implementation, are essential for the independent and injury-free use of the equipment by older people. Of course, these guidelines are not implemented in every instance.
The public relations department plays its part in the development and anchoring of new sports and fitness activities in public areas. It is evident that, up to now, older people did not really know that there were fitness parks in Vienna.

Guidelines for sports and fitness activities in Vienna

After the queries have been dealt with, guidelines for optimal forms of facilities and structural measures are compiled by the project team. These are discussed and adapted in a third step at “round tables” with the older people themselves and also with political and planning decision-makers. Therefore, the project team endeavours to find out the respective target audience of the various fitness facilities and devel-ops ideas for offering further facilities beyond the existing obstacle courses. In addi-tion, it shows the importance of personal guidance for older people using equipment on the course, as the positive effect of participation and empowerment on the improvement of the facilities for the good of the users. Finally, it becomes clear that it is not about a new image of ageing when we wish to retain mobility and fitness later in life.

DI Rita Mayrhofer and DI Heide Studer are partners of tilia Technisches Büro für Landschaftsplanung Wien (Technical Office for Landscape Planning, Vienna), www.tilia.at
Mag Barbara Kolb and Ass. Prof. Mag. Dr. Rosa Diketmüller are employees of the Department of Exercise and Sports Pedagogy at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Vienna. The project ‘gemma raus!’ is being developed using funds from the Fund for a Healthy Austria, the Ministry of Sport and the City of Vienna, MA 18 – urban development and urban planning.

All photos: tilia

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