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The Benefits of Working Out in Parks and Public Spaces

By Martha Michael

Working out in Public Places

From climbing the monkey bars as a child to attacking hiking trails in retirement, parks and public spaces offer a lifetime of opportunities to play outside. Although many people get their exercise inside the walls of a gym, when you take it outdoors you get the added benefits of fresh air, sunshine, and a variety of sporting options.

Why Train Outdoors?

Health experts encourage physical activity of all kinds because a sedentary lifestyle is a common risk factor in the development of a number of health problems. If you’re getting regular exercise and love your system, don’t fix what isn’t broken. If you’re looking for a new idea to keep you active, getting outdoors can be an energizing alternative to the fitness doldrums and offer physical and mental health benefits.

For the use of boxing bags, pilates equipment, and barres for ballet, you’re typically stuck indoors, but many martial arts classes and cardio workouts, such as Zumba and circuit training, have taken it outside. An article on the website for playground equipment company Lappset has a list of reasons why exercising outdoors is better than going to a gym.

Lower blood pressure - Exercise is beneficial wherever you do it, but if you join a boot camp or simply find the added space in a park invigorating, you’re more likely to train harder. Maximizing your workout makes the health advantages greater.

Improved sleep - Exercise reduces stress and fresh air can increase your energy level and lower the chance of developing/experiencing insomnia.

Sunshine - Natural light from the sun gives you a dose of Vitamin D with a boost of energy to your muscles and oxidation of your tissues. Be sure to wear sunblock and stay hydrated when training outdoors.

No cost - There aren’t very many cost-free opportunities to stay active, including kids’ programs such as AYSO (soccer), Pop Warner, and school sports teams, which have fees. Exercising in a park, hiking a trail, or jogging through a green space costs you nothing but a little time.

Time-saving - Stop by the county park on your way home from work or jog when you wake up. Depending on where people live, it can take a lot less time than getting in a gas-guzzler and heading into a locker room, then showering before heading home.

More variety - If you tend to get bored with a fitness routine, one way to break the cycle is to change it up, which is easy with a choice of multiple parks and outdoor settings. You can hit the bike trail one day and a dog park the next.

Trying something new - If you’re used to free weights or the elliptical at the gym, you can open yourself to a brand new fitness regimen. Use your body weight for resistance training when you run the gauntlet of exercise stations at a public park, or join a team and hit a public court or baseball field every week.

Organized Sports Held in Parks and Public Spaces

From Little League to parks and recreation programs, organized sports are held year-round in outdoor spaces, and the benefits are multi-faceted.

The National Library of Medicine has an article citing specific benefits to organized outdoor sports, both for individuals and the community.

Inclusion of Differently-Abled Individuals

When programs are designed to include at-risk youth or kids with physical or mental disabilities, it’s a rare opportunity for group participation. Outdoor sports are a way to reintegrate individuals who have become disengaged or suffer from social isolation due to differences in circumstances or physical features. The result is a rise in active citizenship stemming from social connectedness because it boosts pride, identity, and community volunteerism.

Crime Reduction

Organized sports programs promote prosocial behavior. Participation in structured sports is linked to a reduction in youth delinquency. There is research showing it reduces the use of tobacco products, alcohol consumption, and substance misuse as well.

Inspiring a Lifetime of Physical Activity

If an introduction to the practice of exercising outdoors can improve health in the short term, it has an even bigger return on investment if it has long-term effects. “Outdoor sports were shown to be used as a tool to successfully activate sedentary, non-active people, promote active and healthy lifestyles, and are able to influence positive attitudes towards physical activity,” the article says. “As outdoor sports have connections to lifetime activity-habits, they can foster sport adherence over the life course and help people to find and maintain an active way of life.”

Good for Sense of Community

Studies of organized sports show they connect people to their communities. These connections extend to neighbors, points of interest, and to nature in general. It’s a platform for kids to develop a peer group and contributes to a supportive social network, which also has mental health benefits.

Park Programs

Families seeking an outdoor experience often turn to the National Park Service for hiking, ranger talks, camping, and other physical activities. These public tourist attractions have programs designed to bring the enjoyment of nature to more people.

Healthy Parks Healthy People

A worldwide campaign promoting physical activity in parks and public spaces, the Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative was established in 2015 to contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world. According to the website for the National Park Service, it’s a reminder to the public that there are more than 400 sites for people to explore, offering fresh air and outdoor exercise opportunities.

Leave No Child Inside Movement

Inspired by the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, No Child Left Inside is a movement aimed at connecting more kids to the outdoors. As a result, a number of states have supported programs to fund environmental education. In 2022, the U.S. Congress introduced the No Child Left Inside bill to support hands-on access to nature and provide grants for programs that boost environmental literacy.

Park Prescription

A program launched by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Park Prescription (or Park Rx) programs are collaborations between public lands and community partners to connect individuals to outdoor spaces for health reasons. The programs provide interventions such as:

  • Health and social services
  • Inspiration for patients or clients to connect with nature
  • Improved health and well-being

April 22, 2023 is Park Prescription Day, which celebrates the healthy choice to spend time in a park, on a trail, or in another public space for outdoor recreation. But you shouldn’t need a “holiday” to go to a park; it’s one of the great little joys in life.

If your last visit to a park was in your sandbox years, you probably aren’t aware of the variety of activities available today. It’s more than swingsets and handball courts. Every community has green spaces for hiking, biking, and community sports for all ages. Who knows? You may still be able to hit it out of the park like the old days.

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