The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends American adults, including seniors, get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities, such as jogging or running, every week to help maintain -- and possibly lose -- weight. The CDC also recommends strength training two (or more) days each week. Many types of physical activity, whether it's walking a dog or digging in your garden, count toward those hours of exercise. And being active for even just 10 minutes at a time counts toward your weekly total. But, still, we aren't doing a very good job with those fitness recommendations. Our biggest excuses? We don't have time. It's too much work.
If you're carrying some extra weight or if you've fallen off the fitness wagon you're not alone. The average American adult weighs 23 pounds (10.4 kilograms) more than what is considered his or her ideal weight, and about 35 percent of us are considered obese (which means weighing more than 20 percent over your ideal weight) [source: Rauh, CDC]. And if things continue as they are currently trending -- bigger waists and more weight -- it's estimated that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030 [source: Begley].
If thoughts of going to the gym or training for a 5k don't motivate you, maybe the monkey bars will. We know how important it is for kids to play -- not only does it engage their imaginations; it also helps them develop dexterity and strength (both physical and mental). But playing is not just kidstuff.
The idea of adults using playgrounds is relatively new to Americans, but outdoor adult fitness areas -- open spaces, stocked with fitness equipment and freely available for anyone to enjoy -- have been gaining popularity in recent years in China, Japan and some European countries. We have our own list of the things we'd like to see in adult playgrounds – so let's hop to it with a classic: the hopscotch court.
Hopscotching for Fitness
When's the last time you stepped on a line or missed a square? If you can't remember the last time you lost your balance on the hopscotch court, consider jumping back to this popular childhood playground game.
Hopscotching is bone-strengthening exercise. As you hop along the grid, you are lifting your own body weight against gravity, and that kind of physical activity helps build and strengthen bone. You also give your leg muscles and your core a workout -- and hopscotching is also a great way to practice balancing, which will help reduce your risk of falling as you age (a common cause of injury among seniors).
Climbing is a great workout, but when's the last time you climbed anything other than the stairs in your house? Indoor and outdoor climbing walls offer many of the same benefits as rock climbing, but in a safer, novice-friendly environment. And those benefits? When climbing a rock wall, you'll work your core, your upper arms and forearms, shoulders, fingers, hands, abs and calves. Indoor gyms and climbing centers have had climbing walls for years, but combining physical activity with fresh air can be exhilarating.
Don't be intimidated by the climbing wall -- it doesn't matter what skill level you're at when you begin. Although you will get a solid workout, the benefit of climbing walls is not just physical. Yes, climbing helps build muscle strength, endurance, agility and flexibility, but planning each maneuver also sharpens your mental focus.
Do you remember how good it felt to play on the swings, your legs above the ground and your hair blowing in the wind? Odds are, you'll feel the same way now that you're an adult, but all that fun comes with a bonus. While you feel free as a bird, you'll also be working out your arms and abs as you glide through the air -- and if you swing for about 20 minutes, you'll burn about 100 calories [source: Self].
The swing set can also be used for more traditional strength training. Try holding on to the seat while you hold a plank pose, or try keeping your balance doing knee lifts while you stand on the seat to change things up.
Slides in an adult playground? Absolutely. Not only is sliding down one a lot of fun -- and isn't that the point of being at an adult playground? -- every time you climb back up for another ride, you're giving your calves a good workout, whether you climb the ladder or walk up the slide itself.
While you climb, be aware of your arms: For the best lower body climbing workout and balance training don't pull yourself up by or lean on your arms as you climb -- you want your leg and core muscles (that's your abs, pelvis, hips and back) to do the work.
Walking is one of the best exercises you can do. It costs almost nothing, and has big benefits.
Regular, moderately-paced walks can help you manage your weight, improve your cholesterol levels, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (or complications from type 2 diabetes). Walking also helps to lift your mood (it releases pain-killing, mood-boosting endorphins) and keep insomnia at bay [sources: Mayo Clinic, Arthritis Today].
Remember, you're looking for at least a moderate pace while you walk, which means about 100 steps each minute (using a pedometer can help you track your steps). And don't avoid the hills: You'll expend one-third more energy while walking up a 15-degree incline than you will on a flat path [sources: Zerbe, Columbia Health].
Outdoor Gym Equipment
According to a recent survey by the American Heart Association, downturns in the economy affect our physical health, and our ability to go to the gym. In 2008 and 2009, gym membership cancellations were high and new gym memberships were on the decline -- all due to Americans tightening their budgets [source: IBISWorld].
Outdoor gym equipment at your local adult playground, on the other hand, is free to use -- no membership required. Workout areas designed for exterior spaces should typically include the kind of fitness equipment you expect at an indoor, membership-only gym: benches, leg press and leg curl machines, recumbent and stationary bikes -- even treadmills designed for outdoor use.
Parkour and Obstacle Courses
Negotiating an obstacle course not only helps to condition your muscles, it also helps improve your balance and your confidence. Adult-oriented courses should be complex and include obstacles to jump over, obstacles for agility training, balancing beams, climbing ropes or nets, tunnels to crawl through, and ladders or bars for both vertical and horizontal climbing.
For those looking for something a little more exciting than the balance beam, parkour may be the answer. While it may look like acrobatics, parkour takes the obstacle course away from the balance beam and rope nets and brings it to the environment you have available to you -- be it an urban downtown or your local park. You'll find yourself running, jumping, climbing, balancing around benches, fountains and any other obstacle in your path as you learn the discipline.
Zip Lines and Aerial Adventures
Imagine yourself navigating an obstacle course full of bridges, nets, swings and slides -- and now imagine yourself doing it suspended in the trees. Aerial adventure courses often include zip lines, suspended bridges, nets, swings and slides that are all part of the tree canopy, but while you're whizzing along on a zip line, you'll also be getting a good workout.
Because navigating these obstacles will challenge you to lift your own body weight, suspended obstacle courses improve our upper body strength. They also work your core muscles (abs, pelvis, hips and back), and a strong core means improved posture and fewer back aches, as well as improved balance and less risk of falling.
Multigenerational Play Areas
Multigenerational playgrounds are built to accommodate kids, their parents and grandparents -- these are playgrounds for kids of any age. In these spaces, you'll find kid-sized slides and swings alongside outdoor fitness stations with adult-sized equipment such as stationary exercise bikes, chess boards and balance beams, all intended to help keep us physically -- and cognitively and emotionally -- fit from childhood through our senior years.
"Play and physical activity targets parts of the brain that often stay dormant with our sedentary, screen-based lifestyles," explains Maria Hassel, director of Children's Learning World, a Montessori school. "Physical play -- even Zumba -- climbing, logic puzzles and non-routinized activities allow us to see things differently, and use our brains in different ways, which is critical to a healthy physical and mental state"
Play areas that offer options for all ages also offer a new twist on family time -- staying healthy together through physical activity could replace more sedentary activities.
Energy-harvesting Playground Equipment
Energy-harvesting playground equipment is pretty much exactly what it sounds like -- playground equipment that is capable of collecting and storing energy. The kinetic energy from your movements could be used to power everything from outdoor playground lighting to possibly even nearby buildings, depending on how many people use the energy-harvesting equipment (the more people working out, the more electricity generated and collected).
Does this sound far-fetched and futuristic? Designers and engineers are already hard at work on the technology. And just how much electricity can you generate while you're on the playground? When you're engaged in moderate-intensity exercise, you generate about 50 watts of electricity in one hour [source: California Fitness]. In the future, the answer to an energy crisis could be as simple as child's play -- literally.
Mountains are definitely not the only thing worth climbing. Learn more about the urban climbers scrambling up cranes, skyscrapers and even Corcovado.
Author's Note: 10 Things We Want to See in Adult Playgrounds
You know what surprised me most of all as I begin researching all of the possibilities for this article? All the benefits of hopscotching. I loved playing hopscotch when I was a kid, but as I sat here reminiscing about recess I found I couldn't actually remember the rules of the game. And do kids today still play hopscotch? What I came away with, in the end, is that none of us, young and old, are hopscotching, and that's a shame -- not only because it's such a fun way to be active, but because you can easily throw down a court with nothing but a piece of chalk.
More Great Links
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