The Fit Trail: Taking Your Workout to Public Spaces

It's a Parcourse, of Course!

Example of a parcourse set up.. Playworld Systems

I grew up about 300 yards from a hike and bike trail that was littered with odd wood-and-metal stations where motivated individuals could perform calisthenics and body weight exercises as they walked (or ran) along the trail. When I was very young, these stations fascinated me - could I decipher the weird images and perform the recommended exercises?

Usually not.

But as I got older, I wondered why anyone would use them.

They were old, and the movements seemed dated. To perform the exercises, you'd be on display to anyone walking by. And frankly, why wouldn't you just get a gym membership?

Even after I became a Parks and Recreation Supervisor for a small city, I questioned whether these parcourses were really worth the cost.

And the answer is actually very simple: It depends.

Fit trails, or parcourses, range from the very basic (much like the parcourse I grew up by) to the technical. Some include outdoor cardio "machines" and gym-like strength training equipment. Most are spread out along a jogging trail, but some newer versions, like the National Fitness Campaign's Fitness Court, are compact outdoor gyms where up to 28 people can workout simultaneously, with or without instruction.

The Benefits of Parcourses

  • They're most frequently purchased and maintained as a service to the community. This means they're free to use, opening up fitness opportunities to those who may not be willing or able to sign up for a gym membership or motivate themselves to exercise at home.
  • They provide basic instruction (usually in the form of diagrams) about the proper execution of standard body weight exercises. This instruction isn't comparable to what you'd get from a trainer at a gym, or even a well-developed YouTube video, but it's similar to what you might find on exercise machines in fitness centers.
  • The workout is mapped out for the user. Parcourses are designed in a way to map out an effective workout routine. Those who start at the beginning of the series can feel confident that they're performing exercises in a strategic sequence.
  • They reiterate the fact that joining a gym isn't necessary. Gym-less body weight training has boomed in popularity over the last 10 years, but many people still feel overwhelmed by the thought of pushups, pullups, and other self-generated exercises. Also, trying to put your own workout together at home can be challenging, especially if your equipment is lacking. Parcourses are a nice "middle ground" - they're not a home-based workout, and they're not a gym workout. They're a free option that lies somewhere in between.

But there are reasons why I remained a skeptic for so many years. Namely, there are drawbacks. 

The Drawbacks of Parcourses

There are very few parcourse drawbacks for users - what could possibly be wrong with a free, outdoor gym? Unfortunately, that's not the case for communities considering installing them.

These communities have to do a cost-benefit analysis, and because many parcourses see limited use, parks and recreation departments may decide against an install. 

But the problem isn't with the concept or equipment themselves. The problem boils down to marketing and programming.

In the 18 years I lived around the corner from a parcourse, I only remember seeing one or two people using the equipment the way it was intended. And while I'm not 100% sure why this was the case, I can guess it had something to do with the following five reasons:

  1. People didn't know the equipment existed.
  2. People felt self-conscious using the equipment in a public space.
  3. People didn't know what the equipment was for and didn't understand the benefits.
  4. There weren't opportunities for community members to learn how to use the equipment.
  5. Those who tried some of the equipment - particularly outdoor versions of cardio and weight "machines," were disappointed by the lack of resistance provided.

These are serious drawbacks, but they're drawbacks that can be managed with the right marketing, education, and programming.

Taking Advantage of Fit Trails

First, find out whether you have a fit trail or parcourse in your community - you can usually contact your local parks department or recreation center to see what's available. If you have one in your area, go check it out! Do a simple walk-through of the trail, read the provided sign posts, and make note of any questions you have.

Once you've checked out the course, call the organization that manages the trail and ask whether they offer instructor-led orientations to help you learn proper form. You may discover your community provides classes or meetups for local residents to go through the workout together.

If group sessions aren't available, and you're worried you won't know how to do the exercises, or you feel self-conscious about having other people see you, recruit a friend to tag along. There's strength in numbers, and you can figure out how to do each exercise together.

Finally, if you discover you like some stations, but not others, don't feel bad about skipping a station or two. I personally haven't been impressed with the outdoor "ellipticals" because the stride length is too short for my body, and there's no way to add an incline or greater resistance. These drawbacks make the workout too easy for my liking. But, I really like the multi-function flexibility of Playworld Systems ENERGI Prime Station 2, which includes options for 24 different exercises, including pullups, dips, and hurdle jumps.

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