Skip to main content

Beata Reitner tries out an elliptical machine at an outdoor workout station alongside the Woodbine Beach playground in Toronto Monday May 23, 2011.Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail

Next to swings, slides and monkey bars, anyone who ventures into a park these days is just as likely to find elliptical trainers, leg-press machines or quad machines, if not all three together and more.

Outdoor gyms have been a phenomenon in Europe for about 15 years. But only in the past three years have they sprung up in Canada, and they are growing at an incredible rate, with equipment being added to hundreds of parks each year.

The gym-makers and advocates say adding fitness equipment to green space is a way to encourage people to live healthier, more active lives - without the high cost of gym memberships. A mom who is watching her children play may jump on an elliptical machine rather than sit on a bench, the thinking goes. And people with no interest in the sweaty atmosphere of a weight room may prefer to get pumped up in the fresh air.

It may not be the workout solution for everyone - many personal trainers say specialized equipment isn't necessary for people who want to get in shape. A bench, monkey bars and your body's own weight are sufficient for a solid workout, says Eric Astrauskas, owner of Personal Trainer in Toronto.

But advocates say the outdoor gyms help make physical activity more accessible and spontaneous. "If we can put equipment that people could not afford to pay for, or would have to have a membership at a gym to get access to, out in a public space where it's free and anyone can use it," says Catriona Delaney, manager of Get Active Toronto, "then perhaps we're providing an opportunity for people to engage in physical activity."

The non-profit organization helped co-ordinate the placement of two outdoor gyms placed in parks in the city in the last year.

With obesity rates on the rise, parks departments are showing increasing interest, says Guy Chaham, founder of GreenGym, a Halifax-based company that manufactures outdoor gym equipment.

There's no doubt the idea is becoming increasingly popular. In the past 2 1/2 years, GreenGym has installed equipment in more than 140 parks across Canada.

"We have parks that have a 20-minute waiting time on the weekend [to use the equipment]" Mr. Chaham says.

Some equipment is less frequently used, but that is due to poor placement, a key factor in who will use the equipment and for how long, he points out.

"We find that putting parks near playgrounds is a great idea because then the parents can work out while their kids play," he says. "A lot of people are intimidated by a regular gym. Our gyms are really, truly a playground for adults."

"It's the right idea. It's about getting people out and active," says Anthony Findlay, owner of Level 10 Fitness, in Vancouver.

"Is it necessary? Totally not," Mr. Findlay says. He has spent 17 years taking clients to work out outdoors, something he says has now become a "craze." Boot camps and other fitness classes are all clogging parks these days.

But anyone serious about getting in shape will find everything they need in a park without the need for special equipment, says Ray Burton, owner of BuildingBodies Personal Training, in Calgary.

"Benches for tricep dips, push-ups can be done anywhere. Any wall surface can be used for wall squats, any picnic table can be used for depth jumps, step ups, all sorts of things," Mr. Burton says. "I can't really see a situation where I would use it other than trying to burn off some minutes during a personal training session to justify my rate," Mr. Burton says of the outdoor fitness equipment.

Indeed, people who are drawn to the gyms likely won't be converted to use the equipment, Mr. Chaham says.

"We've had some people say, 'Well, this is not really hard. It's not like the gym.' And you know what? It's absolutely true. Those that want to go to the gym and the people that really want to lift up weight, they go to the gym anyway. We are after the other 95 per cent of the population who don't do anything," he says. "We have to have something easy enough to engage people in fitness activity."

Other makers of outdoor fitness equipment say it will definitely make you work up a sweat, however. And it comes free, which has helped boost its popularity in recent years.

"You're basically getting a very similar workout as you would if you paid your $100-a-month gym membership," says Andy Sweetman, sales manager of Fitness Outdoors, based in Alberta.

Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of ParticipACTION, would be happy to have everyone visiting a gym, but, she says, it's just as important to get people out as it is to get them pumped up. If a leg press machine at a park gets you to a park, then all the better, regardless of how tough the exercise might be.

"We need more people with excuses to be outdoors," she says.