Public parks look a lot different than they did just a decade ago. Sure, you'll find swings and seesaws, but today they're bigger, sturdier, and more ergonomically designed. And they're often paired with colorful outdoor exercise equipment, making play at multigenerational fitness parks a great workout for kids of all ages, even parents and grandparents. And that's the intent. "They need an opportunity to be active alongside the kids they're with," says Lindsay Adeyiga from KaBoom, a nonprofit playground builder that's created dozens of multigenerational parks across the country.
But exerting the gusto of your inner 7-year-old at these parks comes with a risk that can set you up for injury. "My concern is that it's so inviting, someone might be tempted to jump onto the equipment and play without warming up, and injure a muscle," says Madhuri Kale, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
What you'll find at multigenerational fitness parks
A multigenerational fitness park typically includes a large child-focused structure with places for kids to climb, slide, swing, hang, and jump. The playground equipment is adult-friendly: swings are roomy; slides are wide, with gentle slopes; and seesaws have molded seats that are easy to sit on.
Near the playground you'll often find fitness equipment, such as ergonomically shaped bars to hold onto for squats or modified wall pushups; recumbent bicycles and leg presses to build leg, hip, and core muscles; an overhead press to build shoulder and arm strength; and even elliptical or cross-country ski machines for a total body workout.
When used properly, the equipment can help you improve balance, strength, flexibility, range of motion, and coordination. To assist you with that, signs with instructions and illustrations are often posted near each exercise station.
There may also be walking paths and places for interaction between older and younger people, like seating and picnic tables painted with tabletop games (like checkers).
Perks of multigenerational fitness parks
Multigenerational fitness parks are free, and you can visit them on your own schedule. And there's more:
- The exercise machines resemble playground equipment. If you dislike exercising, you may feel like you're just playing, not working.
- You can exercise with your friends, kids, or grandkids. Being with others helps stave off loneliness and depression, which are associated with chronic disease.
- Exercising with other people is a motivator. "You get a healthy sense of competition if you see other people doing a workout," says Kale.
- There's no one judging you or telling you which machines or exercises you should try, or how long to exercise. You can play, just like a kid.
Risks of multigenerational fitness parks
But the parks also have risks, and they go beyond exercising without a warm-up. For example, if you're exercising without expert supervision, you may do so incorrectly and hurt yourself. If you're caught up in the spirit of playtime or competition, you may overdo it and risk muscle injury. In addition, it may be tricky to get on and off playground equipment, which can increase your risk for a fall.
What you should do
"Stay away from playground equipment or outdoor exercise machines if you have balance problems and can fall, or if you've had surgery anywhere along your torso within the last 12 weeks, because you could rupture an incision," warns Kale.
If you're healthy, make sure you warm up before you try the equipment. Take your kids or grandkids for a quick walk. Turn it into a race (but let them win, so you don't overdo it). "Even just a short brisk walk will help get the blood pumping and muscles primed," Kale says.
Then, be mindful of the workout you're getting, and don't do more than you would at a gym. But do have a good time and enjoy the moments with your kids or grandkids. That's why these parks are popping up all over the country. It's a marriage of fun and fitness to encourage quality time and good health for everyone. And that's a change for the better.