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Not all playgrounds are for kids. Older adults keep fit in new parks

AARP’s outdoor fitness parks nationwide are a gift to help an aging community stay physically and mentally healthy

SHARE Not all playgrounds are for kids. Older adults keep fit in new parks
Barry White does plyometric exercises with help from Julia Garcia at an AARP FitLot at Bickley Park in South Salt Lake.

Barry White executes plyometric exercises with assistance from Julia Garcia, an arthritis foundation exercise program teacher, at an AARP FitLot located at Bickley Park in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Barry White is straining a little, but he manages several chin-ups as a photographer takes pictures, his face alternating between a grimace and a happy grin, because just minutes before he didn’t think he could manage even one.

White will be 79 in December and works at fitness as consistently as he used to work running his ad business before he retired. He shows up for classes at a community center five days a week and stays physically active in between. He’s convinced, he says, that exercise is his best hope of avoiding a heart attack or stroke. It helps him control his blood pressure.

“And I just feel better doing it,” he adds.

Adults trying to craft a healthy old age are increasingly prioritizing fitness because science calls that a must-do. Exercise is key to reducing the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), heart disease, at least eight types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, weight gain and scads of other issues with long-term negative impact on longevity and quality of life.

So it’s no surprise that when AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins was looking for a way to celebrate the organization’s 60th anniversary in 2018, making stair steppers and hand wheels, pull-up bars and other outdoor gym tools readily available to older adults was an appealing idea.

Since just before the pandemic began, AARP — a nonprofit that works for the interests of people 50 and older — has sponsored the creation of 53 outdoor fitness parks for adults, placing one in each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Adults of all ages are free to use the equipment. While there’s no minimum age for adults who exercise on what looks like an adult playground, AARP is especially keen on engaging older adults in building strength, doing aerobic workouts and working on balance to prevent falls.

On Thursday, Utah’s fitness park, located in Bickley Park on the north side of the Columbus Community Center, 2508 S. 500 East in South Salt Lake, celebrated its first anniversary with prizes, gigantic fruit cups and an invitation to try the various fitness tools.

“We want people to use this,” said Utah AARP director Alan Ormsby, gesturing toward the equipment, which includes signs showing how each device works and QR codes that link to video demonstrations. “But we especially want older adults to feel welcome and engaged.”

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Joann Price works out on an elliptical machine at an AARP FitLot located at Bickley Park in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Lifelong fitness push

The fitness parks are located in communities that might not otherwise have outdoor access to equipment designed for adults of all ages and skill levels. AARP has teamed up with local parks and recreation departments and with a nonprofit called FitLot that provides extra programming, including classes if someone wants to exercise with a community or learn more about how the equipment works. Right now, however, FitLot is struggling to find teachers for this park, Ormsby said. And Utah’s AARP is hoping to find volunteers to lead classes.

Like the children’s playground that also sits adjacent to the community center, the fitness park has lots of features designed to work different muscles, suit different skill levels and encourage a bit of derring-do. One could do pull-ups or chest presses, stretching exercises, stair stepping and a lot more.

Since children and older adults have separate programs at the Columbus Center, sometimes the generations work out and play near each other. On weekends or after hours, Deseret News has spoken to adults who brought children or grandchildren to the playground and then watched them from feet away while they themselves exercised in the adult fitness area.

“You have equipment that someone who is buff can use and you have equipment that someone who is older, like me, can use very easily,” Morie Smile, vice president for the Office of Community Engagement at AARP’s national office, said in a telephone interview. “That is pretty special.”

There are similarities and differences between the fitness parks in each state. In St. Petersburg, Florida, as in South Salt Lake, Utah, a children’s playground is right by the adult fitness park, she said. In San Antonio, Texas, there are ball fields and a skateboard park situated very near. The same is true in Phoenix, Arizona. The parks are family-friendly by design.

Smile said one of her favorite aspects is the intergenerational appeal, where adults and children are out together doing things and being healthy.

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Susan Heynen uses the exercise equipment at an AARP FitLot located at Bickley Park in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What older adults need

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that adults age 65 and older need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity — think brisk walking — every week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intense activity, which could be hiking or jogging or running.

Older adults also need to work on strengthening their muscles at least two days a week and on improving balance three days a week. The latter prevents costly, life-changing falls. And it all helps preserve quality of life and health care dollars.

People are getting the message that moving and challenging yourself physically matters as you age. Pick any day of the week and you may find older adults walking briskly through malls across America in the hours before retail businesses even open. They can be winter destinations for those wanting to keep fit.

Joann Price is a former school district administrator who said retirement has given her time she didn’t have to exercise. She and her friend Noosha Dixon, a retired teacher, take line dance classes and have a great time while maintaining their health. Dixon’s especially fond of pickleball, too. They nurture their friendship and their health with all kinds of physical activities.

Though she laughs and jokes and generally has a great time as they dance and play, Price is serious about the brain protection offered by exercise. One of her parents had Alzheimer’s disease and she knows there’s no magic pill, but that eating right, sleeping well and breaking a sweat reduce the risk. She travels between senior centers for different activities and said the fitness park will be a welcome addition to her list, when the weather cools.

Price notes that sometimes senior centers get it wrong, “designing gorgeous lounges for inactive seniors” while shoehorning fitness into any cramped space that’s available. So the outdoor fitness parks built with older adults in mind are a boon.

Susan Bowlden says she’s likely to become an avid fitness park user, though she added that she’d like to see some support bars added for those who, like her, are somewhat wobbly now.

She used to walk in the canyons around Salt Lake City a lot. Her playground is smaller now. She’s a COVID-19 long-hauler who also had a bout of norovirus last year that put her in the hospital and left her weak and in need of physical therapy. She’s hoping to transition into more opportunities like those found at the outdoor fitness park. But she’d also like a class on using the equipment and hopes that’s available soon.

The parks during COVID-19

The outdoor fitness parks were very busy when they started going in, said Smile, who noted that things slowed nearly to a standstill during parts of the pandemic. Still, AARP used the time to keep construction going on building outdoor fitness parks in each state. They finished the last one in 2021.

Now they are able to resume having celebrations like the Thursday fete to formally introduce the parks and the opportunities they provide to communities.

Many, including the Utah fitness park, opened pretty quietly while COVID-19 raged.

“But I can tell you that when we went to the St. Petersburg (Florida) fitness park, when we went to the Cincinnati fitness park, they were packed, and it wasn’t a class,” said Smile.

Though the goal for AARP is to boost fitness and make it easier for older adults, they don’t track age because every adult can benefit and an active lifestyle earlier leads to a better old age, so the goals converge.

“We were really intentional about making sure that these parks were accessible to older individuals,” said Smile, noting that social isolation is an extraordinarily tough challenge that getting outside and being active helps counter.

“The benefits of exercise and being strong and healthy and fit as you age are just so important,” said Smile. “It helps your longevity. It helps your emotional well-being. It’s so good for people to be out, to not be isolated, to have that social connection. I think that is a huge benefit.”

Information about the AARP/FitLot outdoor fitness parks in each state can be found online at AARP.org.

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Noosha Dixon performs sit-ups at AARP’s FitLot located at Bickley Park in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News