Free outdoor gyms a new tool in the fight against fat

Park-goers can lift weights at 80 locations nationwide in an initiative that backers hope gives physicians another way to help patients battle obesity.

By — Posted Dec. 31, 2012

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Some physicians are now advising patients to take advantage of free outdoor cardiovascular and weight-training machines in the latest innovative solution to Americans’ alarmingly low levels of regular physical activity.

Free outdoor gyms have been springing up in parks across the country. This effort is being led by the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization.

A key goal of Fitness Zones, which was launched in 2010, is to make exercise enjoyable and easily accessible to everyone in the community by constructing sturdy clusters of cardiovascular and weight-training machines in parks that can withstand extreme temperatures and other weather events. So far, there are 80 open-air Fitness Zone locations in cities such as Los Angeles, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Newark, N.J.

The program comes at a time when physicians are feeling mounting pressure to treat the nation’s obesity epidemic, which is leading to soaring rates of chronic diseases among adults and children and driving up the country’s health care spending, health professionals say. One-third of U.S. adults and 17% of the nation’s youth are obese.

In 2008, obesity-related medical costs were an estimated $147 billion, up from $78.5 billion in 1998, according to a study of medical expenditure data in the September/October 2009 issue of Health Affairs.

Most primary care doctors already discuss with patients the importance of regular physical activity, and an increasing number of physicians are writing prescriptions for exercise.

But a significant challenge doctors face is getting patients to follow through with fitness recommendations, said Sarah E. Messiah, PhD, MPH. She is a perinatal/pediatric epidemiologist in the Dept. of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“When you tell patients to exercise, they often say, ‘I’m not getting on a treadmill for half an hour. I hate it. It’s boring,’ ” said Messiah, who counsels patients at the university’s obesity clinics on lifestyle modification.

“But when you say, ‘Take the family to the park this weekend. Do the Fitness Zone, walk the trails,’ it just sounds different,” she said. “It’s more appealing.”

Messiah and others say the Fitness Zone program is an important tool for physicians to help patients boost their activity levels, shed pounds, manage chronic disease and improve their overall wellness.

“Many doctors want their patients to be physically active but don’t know where to tell them to go or what to tell them to do. That can change with these parks,” said Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, a community pediatrician in Vista, Calif., and a senior health strategist for the American Council on Exercise.

Exercise can be anywhere

For doctors who don’t practice near a Fitness Zone, the idea is a reminder that physicians should be aware of local resources that can help improve their patients’ wellness, Dr. Muth said. Such resources could include a nearby park district or YMCA, she added.

“Whatever it is, physicians have the responsibility now of not only prescribing physical activity but of knowing someplace to help the patient get started” on the fitness regimen, Dr. Muth said.

The average total cost for a Fitness Zone facility is $45,000, which includes the equipment, installation and staff time for coordinating the installation, according to a RAND Corp. study on the impact of Fitness Zones in 12 Los Angeles parks. The study was published in the January issue of Health & Place. The Trust for Public Land helps pay for the facility and assists communities in raising private funds.

In selecting a site, the trust identifies communities where there is a need for fitness activities and possibly park improvement. Although many of the gyms are in areas with a warm climate, they are effective in regions with cold weather as well, Kay said.

“Just about any health care issue you have, physical activity can help combat it,” Messiah said. “It makes perfect sense that, regardless of patients’ age, gender or race, primary care physicians make sure their patients are consistently physically active,” she said.

A third of U.S. adults and 17% of youths are obese.

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External links

Information on Fitness Zones, Trust for Public Land (link)

“Declining Childhood Obesity Rates: Where Are We Seeing the Most Progress?” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sept. 1 (link)

“Impact and cost-effectiveness of family Fitness Zones: a natural experiment in urban public parks,” Health & Place, January (link)

“Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity: Payer- and Service-Specific Estimates,” Health Affairs, September/October 2009 (link)

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