Toning-Up Tactics

Photos Courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

When the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department in Texas opted to incorporate outdoor fitness equipment into a citywide healthy-lifestyles initiative in 2010, staff members had no idea how popular and effective the equipment would become in the fight to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity in a city more known for its mouth-watering Mexican cuisine than a culture of fitness.

“We were approached by the Metropolitan Health District and asked to come up with innovative ways to combat obesity, which has a direct correlation to diabetes, one of the big health challenges in a predominately Hispanic population,” explains Sandy Jenkins, Park Projects Manager for San Antonio’s Parks Department. “Outdoor fitness equipment was just beginning to be marketed by playground manufacturing companies. We decided to incorporate the fitness equipment into parks with walking trails as part of a grant proposal led by the Health Department.”

With the assistance of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the department has installed the equipment in 33 parks throughout the city. Additionally, fitness stations are now available at five municipal libraries.

The department installed two types of equipment: the first features stationary pieces for resistance training, stretching, and balance; the second involves interactive equipment, such as a cardio walker, chest press, seated leg press, rowing machine, and total-body row.

With a few exceptions, the equipment is located in parks open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., 7 days a week. Its use is free.

“Expanding outdoor fitness options is essential to helping more San Antonians adopt a healthy lifestyle,” says Mayor Julián Castro. “Putting fitness equipment in our city parks makes it accessible to everyone.”

San Antonio’s City Manager Sheryl Sculley agrees. “The feedback from the community has been that citizens want more outdoor fitness equipment in their parks. They enjoy exercising in our beautiful park settings located in their neighborhoods and close to home. People who enjoy the exercise experience are more likely to repeat it.”

Lessons Learned

Of course, with any new endeavor, there is a learning curve. The installation of fitness stations was no exception. For instance, in the first wave, the department installed equipment either along existing trails or clustered in a “gym” near the trail. It quickly became apparent that the latter approach is more popular. “Folks like to do cardio, cardio, cardio, stop and do the stations, then go back to cardio, cardio, cardio,” Jenkins says.

Another critical lesson: incorporate shade. “We learned that some of the equipment won’t stand up to the intense heat we have in south Texas,” Jenkins explains. “Shade is paramount. We’ve had to install free-standing shade structures in a number of places, and we’re hoping manufacturers will begin to incorporate shade features into the equipment the way they have with playground equipment.”

Feedback from the community led to equipment being installed near playgrounds. This allows parents to supervise their children on the playground and exercise at the same time. “This has been a great addition. Parents tell us they love having something to do while their children play.”

Partners In Programming

As the program has grown and become more popular, the department has begun to collaborate with other entities, including the public-library system. Five libraries have added walking trails, playgrounds, and fitness equipment to the grounds outside their main buildings. “This has been a wonderful collaboration. It’s thinking outside the box about the library experience,” Jenkins says. “Library users can get exercise, the children can play, and they can check out their books, all in the same trip. It’s been hugely successful.”

The department recently collaborated with the national play-advocacy organization KaBOOM! and one of its corporate sponsors, Humana, to build a playground that

incorporates fitness amenities. “KaBOOM! has recognized the way in which fitness components make the playground experience a family experience,” Jenkins explains. “Our latest playground build reflected that, and it provides a multi-generational play experience.”

The equipment also brings an added, positive element to the citywide, free Fitness in the Park Program. Instructors use the equipment as a centerpiece to exercise boot camps, circuit training, and High Intensity Interval Training sessions at several parks.

“This is an added facet to the class because we can do exercises with this equipment that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in an outdoor setting,” says Program Manager Travis Davey. “For instance, we can do bench presses. The instructors couldn’t bring out that kind of portable equipment to the park.”

Having the equipment in the parks also means participants can learn the exercises from the instructors by attending classes once or twice a week, and then work out on their own as often as they like during the remainder of the week. “It allows them to have more consistency and frequency once they’ve learned the exercises from the instructor,” Davey explains.

Davey now plans many of the classes around the location of the fitness equipment. “The big advantage over the indoor gyms is that the equipment is available when the parks are open, which is all day, every day. Gyms generally have less flexibility in terms of hours and availability.”

The equipment is also utilized in Fit Pass SA, the department’s fitness passport program that allows participants to attend free and low-cost wellness opportunities and earn points for prizes. AssistantParks and Recreation Manager Michael Baldwin, who coordinates the interactive-fitness scavenger hunt, says citizens are invited to utilize the equipment at certain locations on specific days and times for Fit Pass SA. “Our staff then arrives at those locations to stamp their Fit Pass SA passports,” he explains. “They earn points for using the equipment just as they would by attending a class or participating in a run. The points earned help them win prizes. It’s another way of encouraging folks to get active and fit.”

Maintenance Matters

Maintenance for the fitness equipment is handled in much the same way playground maintenance is handled. Jenkins says staff members inspect the equipment quarterly and replace components as necessary. “Early on, we had issues with the hydraulics in some of the equipment with moving pieces, but the manufacturer really listened to us, and they went back and corrected those issues.”

Maintenance issues are reduced by using concrete pads at each station, Jenkins notes. This prevents grass and weeds from growing into the equipment and makes theft more difficult. “We can use leaf blowers to blow away debris. Concrete, while costing more upfront, has really been more cost effective for us in the long run.”

She estimates the cost of concrete adds about 25 percent to the overall project budget. “But maintenance-wise, it has really paid off.”

Parts Of The Whole

While the fitness stations alone can’t propel San Antonio to the coveted spot of Fit City, they have contributed to raising the bar as part of a massive ARRA-funded campaign that has incorporated community gardens, salad bars in schools, Complete Streets initiatives, bike-sharing stations, a park-user survey, and a far-reaching public-awareness campaign over the past several years. A report issued in August 2013 by the CDC showed the adult obesity rate in San Antonio and BexarCounty dropped from 35.1 percent to 28.5 percent from 2010 to 2012.

San Antonio is now fitter than most of Texas, which has an adult obesity rate of 29.2 percent. “We’re not there yet,” says Jenkins. “But we certainly have the momentum and fitness equipment in the parks that will help us maintain the momentum as part of a broader, comprehensive approach to better health for our citizens.”

Kelly Irvin is the Public Relations Manager for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department in Texas. Reach her at .