How to Take Advantage of Outdoor Fitness Parks

They may not replace your gym, but if you're not using the free equipment at your local park, you're missing out

A group of people exercising at an outdoor fitness park.
These fine folks have got the right idea.
Gabin Vallet/Unsplash

On runs around New York City over the years, I’ve sometimes seen fellow exercisers stop to perform pull-ups on construction scaffolding or the piping of traffic poles. Scientifically speaking, these trainees are engaging in something called arboreal locomotion; it’s an underused movement pattern among modern human beings — yet still a natural favorite of monkeys — which releases the shoulders and improves grip strength.

Spiritually speaking, though, they’re treating the city like a concrete jungle gym. They’re behaving like kids (see thing, hang from thing), all keyed up on the adrenaline of unfettered movement. Maybe it sounds too scatterbrained for a modern workout schedule — what kind of session involves randomly trying things as you come upon them? — but I’d argue that this is the sort of exercise we could all benefit from, at least a few times a month.

Whether you think of it as a pseudo-cardio hour with bursts of strength training, or micro-circuits or memorable challenges followed by a return back to the task at hand, you don’t need to live in NYC or near scaffolding (which is kind of dangerous, let’s be honest) to perform something like this. You just need a good outdoor fitness park.

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What Are Outdoor Fitness Parks?

Here’s a great example of an outdoor fitness park. In fact, that’s my local one: a crop of bars and platforms astride the McCarren Park Track, in North Brooklyn.

There’s a good chance you have a similar fitness park near you. The equipment you’ll find most often includes parallel dip bars, pull-up bar units, step-up boxes, sometimes even sit-up benches. I’ve encountered these “gyms” in various forms around the world. Sometimes each machine is situated within inches of each other, other times they’re arranged linearly, over one-tenth increments of a mile. Sometimes the gym is actually just a playground that’s either been repurposed or has become frequented in non-school hours by strength-training adults.

(The final, dream scenario is Sydney, Australia’s coastal walk, which has multiple fitness parks arranged on ocean bluffs along a four-ish-mile trail. That’s how you do it.)

In warm-weather places — and even in some cold-weather spots, you’d be surprised — there are locals who visit these outdoor fitness parks nonstop. I go to my track enough to see familiar faces working out every single day at McCarren’s gym. You can understand the basic appeal: assuming the equipment isn’t too old or rusty, it’s a steal. No $100 monthly membership. Bodyweight calisthenics can take you a long way in this life.

How to Use Them This Year

If you’re the kind of person who can show up to these gyms week in and week out, without fail, and stay cut, all power to you. That’s extremely impressive.

For the rest of us, I like the idea of deploying them as a “wild card” workout day. Whenever your membership at the gym is feeling stale, or your cardio is feeling predictable, spend two minutes on Google Maps and figure out where your closest fitness park is. Whatever form it unfurls in (all in one place, or over a set distance), lean into it.

I recommend combining a mix of steady state cardio (think: conversational jogging), with short bursts of speed (more on sprinting here) and intervals on whatever equipment you’ve got handy. Assuming the standard mix of bars, I would shoot for: pull-ups, dips, lean-to push-ups, inverted rows, leg raises and planks. I wouldn’t worry too much about reps; just work out as old school as possible. Get your heart rate up. Sweat. Ride the adrenaline high to its natural conclusion, then work hard for a little longer than you want to in order to really cement in the effort.

As we’ve long said here, fitness shouldn’t feel conventional or stale. It’s more fun when it’s new, and it’s always better when it’s outside. These next six months, save this idea for a sunny day.

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