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16.04.2012 - Ausgabe: 2/2012

Why not encourage the various generations to play together?

By DI Rita Mayrhofer


Nowadays, people are being offered a diverse and attractive range of options in public spaces that are designed to persuade them to train and exercise. Unfortunately, the strategy does not seem to be working: surveys have shown that almost all equipment supplied is used principally by children and adolescents, and to a limited extent by younger adults – but is completely ignored by the older generations.

Although certain options are tailored specifically to the requirements of older adults and they as a generation are being targeted by public information campaigns, they just do not appear to be getting the message. They are failing to take advantage of the opportunities – on their own or in combination with younger people. It is generally accepted that adequate exercise is the key to a healthy old age. Nearly every magazine has tips and information designed to help the elderly keep fit, and although health is an important issue for the older generations, it would appear that the concept of using public exercise facilities is something that still does not appeal to them. All attempts to date by local authorities, policy-makers, urban planners and public park executives in Germany and Austria to convince those over the age of 50 to benefit from amenities that are provided free of charge and widely available have proved futile.

‘Gemma raus!’ – Let’s go out!

In the years 2009 – 2011, sports consultants and landscape architects in Vienna joined forces to undertake a research and public mobilisation project during which they investigated who was actually using the exercise equipment in five public parks and what could be done to make the amenities more attractive for the age groups over 60 years of age. The project was entitled ‘Gemma raus’ – roughly ‘Let’s go out!’ (also an acronym for ‘GEsundheitsfördernde MitMachAktionen für ältere FRAUen und Männer in BewegungsparkS‘ i.e.health- promoting interactive programme to encourage older women and men to use exercise parks). The project was supported by funds provided by the Fonds Gesundes Österreich organisation, the Austrian Sports Ministry and the City of Vienna. From surveys, focus groups, training programmes and disseminator training courses, it was apparent that there were certain inhibitions that were preventing the older generations from utilising what was on offer.

Overcoming the obstacles

In Austria, there is no established tradition of adults taking exercise in public parks as there is in certain Asian countries. The first thing to do, therefore, is to develop concepts that will help dispel any associated apprehensions. It was only in the 1990s that the ban prohibiting the public from accessing grassed areas in Viennese parks was officially abolished. Young people had been happily ignoring the related bylaws well before this, while their elders had tended to demand that they be strictly applied. Even the entrenched mental image of elderly people sitting on park benches seemed to be somehow militating against a more open, enquiring attitude towards the new options. In contrast with children, who love to experiment with new equipment and rush off to use it at the first opportunity, the elderly look at such things with far more scepticism and many of those we surveyed were not even aware that equipment had actually been provided for the use of people in their age group. Many also fear appearing foolish in public as they struggle, perspiring, with awkward equipment. Innately more adroit and spry are children and young people, and the more of these there are in the immediate vicinity, the greater this fear becomes.
Multigenerational playing
Observational studies conducted over a period of two years found that adults tended to leave the equipment or avoided going near it as soon as children approached. Children naturally assume that everything in a park that looks like playground equipment has been put there for their use; the problem is to make elderly people think the same way. Even if there is a considerable desire on the part of all to join in activities together and intergenerational communication is an important means of promoting peaceful co-existence, it is not possible to compel people to take the necessary first steps. The gulf between the generations is currently so extensive that it would not be feasible to bridge this through mutual exercise in parks without active intervention. Even the use of the word ‘play’ is problematic. This raises hackles among those of the older generations, who feel that the associations will make them seem infantile or senile. The term ‘multigenerational playground’ is thus also widely unpopular. And if grandparents do take their grandchildren to a multigenerational park, they consider their primary role to be that of childminder and cease their own activities at once when their child needs their help or loses interest, making it impracticable for them to exercise. However, one aspect that those who participated in our supervised training sessions in parks found particularly appealing was that it brought them into contact and gave them the chance of chatting with the young trainers. Here, at least, the concept of shared multigenerational exercise seems to have been successful.

Future outlook

In general, the strategy is supplying a growing demand. International studies of the exercise behaviour of older people report that the current generation of over-sixties prefer to take their exercise in self-organised groups and in the open air. The requirement is thus there. But the exercise facilities also need to be more specifically targeted, both in terms of location and users, and more complementary amenities are required. In other words toilets, drinking fountains, the provision of shade and comfortable tables and benches not only create an appealing environment, they also prevent the exclusion of those who would otherwise be forced to stay away. In Vienna, our regular exercise sessions supervised by qualified trainers for loosely constituted groups proved popular and facilitated the elimination of the related obstacles. Light warm-up exercises and group games, expert advice for those who are unsure whether they should use an air walker after their hip operation and everyone laughing together at the remark of a nursery school child on a pedalo - “Oh look, the old lady is going to have a go!” – all these make possible what people on their own are unwilling even to try.

DI Rita Mayrhofer and DI Heide Studer, Partners at tilia Technisches Büro für Landschaftsplanung Wien (www.tilia.at)
Ass. Prof. Mag. Dr. Rosa Diketmüller and Mag. Barbara Kolb work for the Department of Exercise and Sport Education of the Institute of Sports Science of the University of Vienna

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