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Bringing Your Health Club to the Great Outdoors

Open-air fitness areas are becoming increasingly popular. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when developing yours.

In an effort to maximize opportunities for members to train, space, and programming, clubs are increasingly moving to the great outdoors.

In fact, Barry’s now offers 16 outdoor class locations; Equinox recently launched two outdoor clubs, complete with lockers and tented studio areas; and Crunch Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Basecamp Fitness, and others have converted parking lots, rooftops, and other open-air spaces into fitness areas.

Whether you’re in a warm-weather region of the country or looking to make moves in colder climes as the seasons heat up, there are several issues that come into play if you’re considering an outdoor fitness space.

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“First and foremost, creating a successful outdoor area starts with acknowledging that it’s outside,” says Bo Barber, executive vice president of sales & marketing at flooring surface provider Ecore. “General climate and weather patterns in your geography will have a profound impact on the amount and types of training that are applicable throughout the year. It is also important to consider any extremes in temperature fluctuations or precipitation, as certain equipment may have limitations or warranty exclusions related to outdoor exposure or some specific limitations related to extreme temperature, humidity, salt or moisture.”

Another consideration is the impact of direct sun exposure on general comfort and the glare effect. Sun exposure throughout the day should not only help drive the decision of where to put outdoor spaces in relation to building structures, but also help determine when classes are scheduled.

Beyond weather impacts, there are a few general, interrelated key considerations in creating an outdoor fitness space, according to Rob Boogmans, director of sport and fitness at the Kompan Fitness Institute, which specializes in outdoor fitness areas.

  • Demand. “Think about optimal quantity and functionality of equipment regarding the desired health benefits and user satisfaction of your members, including the number of expected users,” he suggests.
  • Assortment. Try to group a wide range of fitness stations covering different functionality in concentrated mid- to large-scale areas.
  • Design. “Apply the integrative concepts of green space and outdoor gyms by planting shady trees and use greenery to define spaces, where possible,” Boogmans advises.
  • Multifunctionality. Install equipment tailored to the diverse needs of various population groups.
  • Accessibility. “Make sure that the equipment is easily accessible for users of all abilities,” he says.
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Using What You Have

As far as available space goes, you might want to consider flat surfaces, such as parking lots, tennis courts, or outdoor tennis courts as starting points. Most workouts, like cardio, group X, and weightlifting, require a level surface.

In between those workout spaces, you can play with the landscape and use grading differences to create natural separation between different areas,” says Boogmans. “Use them for sport-specific training, running and obstacle courses, individual exercise stations, and more.”

Of course, the overall size of the area you have matters. When it comes to outdoor fitness equipment, for example, you need to consider equipment safety zones, taking into account distancing needs.

Equip for Your Space

Certainly, when choosing equipment, you want the outdoor area to reflect your existing in-club programming and member needs. But creating an area exposed to the elements adds a level of complexity.

“Equipment durability needs in the outdoors are much higher,” he notes. “The equipment has to be outdoors without any supervision, so it must be able to withstand changes in weather and vandalism.”

In addition, there are safety issues, especially for new users, that may require using equipment that complies with ASTM standards.

Don’t Forget the Kids

Among the benefits an outdoor fitness area offers is that kids love playing in the open air, making it perfect for a daycare space.

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“An outdoor play space has multiple benefits,” Boogmans says. “If we add a play area to an outdoor fitness site, we can create a spot for the kids to have fun while the parents enjoy a workout. We also create spaces where families can be active together, instead of each doing their activities separately. These are spaces where parents can be active role models, where kids will see them exercising and being active, so having a healthy lifestyle becomes part of their lives.”

Keep Covered Underfoot

Another critical consideration is your foundation; the surfaces on which your fitness areas are situated. You may not necessarily be aware of the roles they play.

“Whether it’s new or you’re converting an existing outdoor space, it’s critical to acknowledge the existence and movement of water,” asserts Barber. “Accredited architects and designers should help you account for everything from permeable surface restrictions related to your specific property, to local guidelines around slope, drainage, and run-off.”

In addition to water, you should consider the degree of rolling, static, and dropping loads that need to be handled by those surfaces.

“The foundation or substrate needs to be adequate in density and thickness to address acoustical challenges as well as crack suppression,” Barber says. “While concrete and asphalt dominate in spaces adjacent to facilities, compacted stone bases are also common when spaces are freestanding.”

Another consideration in outdoor flooring includes the expansion and contraction that are common in the rubber surfaces often used in performance applications, especially where daily and annual temperature swings are common.

“For that reason,” he says, “modular tile products that float or are poured-in-place (PIP) rubberized systems with expansion joints are exceptional choices in those climates.”

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Several Surface Solutions

Turf with a composition rubber base is also a desirable surface material because turf fabric is inherently more resistant to movement. For strength training with free weights, Ecore recommends its Smash Mats for portable or temporary spaces, and its 30mm thick Big E-Tile as a more robust solution. Its UltraTile, a 24-inch-square by 1-inch-thick tile, offers a permanent solution in a wide color range and the ability to include logos and defined lifting stations.

“When it comes to courts, tracks, and agility training areas, we recommend the Evertop PIP rubber system,” says Barber. “Using our Colormill EPDM granules, this permanent installation offers a seamless surface with ideal playability and slip resistance that is designed to be UV-stabilized for sun exposure. While we offer Evertop as a viable solution for group X or sports training spaces, we recommend Ecore’s multiple turf systems for other applications, because they tend to be more desirable and intuitive for the consumer and are truly multipurpose.”

Ecore’s FlexTurf-Monster is flexible and geared to handling the rigors of strength and conditioning, sled use, agility, and group fitness. FierceTurf-Monster is a more recreational or playable surface, designed to be more consistent with natural grass conditions. Neither of these turf products requires a separate rubber or sand infill, which can be challenging from a maintenance perspective if patrons are moving between turf application and the rest of your facility.

Ecore also offers surfaces for full-field use, child play areas, and smaller, more compact spaces.

To learn more about Ecore’s outdoor surface solutions, visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.