Outdoor gyms: you have seen them, but have you ever used them?
They provide access to fitness equipment for people who can’t afford gym fees – but some experts aren’t convinced of their benefits
When using outdoor gym equipment, it is important to read the instructions to minimise the chance of injury. Photograph: iStock
You have probably seen them in your local park: outdoor gyms, made up of a number of exercise machines designed for adults, are becoming more and more popular in public places across the country. They often include equipment such as a leg press, chest press, a cycling machine and cross trainers, although the package varies depending on the budget and what the company offers.
The companies that install these outdoor gyms suggest they provide an opportunity for people who can’t afford gyms to access fitness equipment. They also claim they offer a range of other health benefits. One study, which took place over five months, found that outdoor fitness equipment could be useful for people with dementia. Another study, which was carried out by the state government of Hessen in Germany, found the use of outdoor gyms could reduce mild depression.
An Irish provider of outdoor gyms, OutFit, says prices range from €6,000 to €25,000. They currently have about 130 adult outdoor gyms installed across the country, with 41 in public parks and walkways. They have also installed equipment in GAA centres, hospitals, secondary schools, prisons, special needs facilities and private businesses. Another provider, Murphy Playground Services, says they average between €8,000 and €15,000, and that a number of councils have paid for them to be installed through the Sports Capital Grant Scheme.
Despite the increasing prevalence of outdoor gyms across parks and public places in Ireland, not everybody is convinced of their usefulness. Siobhán Byrne, a personal trainer and director and co-owner of BodyByrne Fitness, believes outdoor gyms have a place, but are “not for everybody”.
“I love when there’s money put back into our parks to get people outdoors, but you can’t see a 65-year-old woman going for the first time and using the chin-up bars,” she says. “That’s just not realistic. But some of the equipment might help people to get motivated.”
‘Kids messing around’
Byrne also suspects that outdoor gyms are not actually used effectively or often enough. “I’ve seen kids messing around on them, but I’ve never seen anyone using them seriously. That’s not to say that nobody does work out on them. But as a personal trainer, I don’t feel that you’re getting a really effective workout from them. I do think that doing something is better than nothing. If they have the potential to get people out doing something in a group, then it’s effective.”
Byrne believes much needs to be done to encourage people to get active and believes public funds could be better spent on other initiatives. “I certainly think the Government should be looking at putting more money into people-training and getting them fit, whether that’s through gym subscriptions and personal trainers. These are the things that help our health service over a number of years. The fitter and healthier we are, the less reliant we are going to be on health services in years to come.
“So I think money could probably be better spent – spending on outdoor gym equipment might not be the best use of funds. But if it works for even a few people, then it is having an effect. I just think that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not going to be the most effective way to improve people’s fitness.”
As a personal trainer, Byrne feels that people can get “so much more” from joining a gym rather than using outdoor gym equipment. “I’ve been training clients for 15 years, and there’s nothing like strength-training in a gym environment with somebody experienced to guide you through. You have these outdoor gyms in place and people are trying to figure them out, and some of them have never been to a gym before. That’s obviously never going to be as effective as being in a gym environment where you’re being shown what to do.”
Meanwhile, Amy Holmes, who runs Fitness Aims at Andy Kenny Fitness in Dublin city centre, has a more positive view on outdoor gyms, and says she is in favour of anything that gets people moving. “If someone is walking the park or along the strand and jumps on a piece of equipment to try it out then that’s a positive thing. Maybe it will prompt them to explore fitness options or even to use that piece of equipment whenever they go by and hopefully even improve a little each time,” she says.
However, she also says outdoor gyms have a limited amount of equipment as well as a “one-size-fits-all” approach. She also says it is important that people read the instructions on exercise equipment in outdoor gyms before using them to ensure they are using it correctly and to minimise the chance of injury. “In a gym, you can adjust seats and heights, but not everyone can afford a gym membership, so the outdoor gyms provide some options to joggers and walkers and anyone passing by.”