Supporting fitness in parks at any age

July 18, 2019

Jake Tobin Garrett

As Canada’s population ages, ensuring parks meet the needs of older adults is a common goal across the country. This is also a trend we highlight in our new Canadian City Parks Report, which tracked leading practices in parks in 23 Canadian cities. 

Being age-friendly means designing parks that are universally accessible, but also thinking about what different amenities and programming are needed for people as they age. And, as places of recreation, understanding how to support and encourage physical activity for all ages is key.

For example, Toronto just opened a new seniors-focused fitness area in North York’s Godstone Park. The project was funded through a participatory budgeting pilot that allowed residents to vote directly on community improvements, proving amenities for older adults is not just something city planners are prioritizing, but residents, too. 

And a recent study of US neighbourhood parks shows why prioritizing age-friendly amenities and programming is so important: while seniors made up 20% of residents, they only made up 4% of park users. As we look towards a future of increasing older populations, we need to ask ourselves: “How can we improve that?”

Here are a few key learnings from the Canadian City Parks Report on supporting older adult fitness and recreation in parks:

Make it social

Creating safe and fun spaces to take part in physical fitness was a big focus in Canadian cities. But creating a fun and inclusive social environment is also a key part of creating places for people as they age. 

This social element is especially important as more and more people live alone, including seniors, leading to concerns about a loneliness epidemic in Canada and the increasing health risks that come from social isolation. 

One solution? Make fitness social.

Recent UBC research published in the Journal of Health Psychology indicates that for seniors, exercising with people their own age increases the likelihood of regular exercise and fosters a sense of belonging.

But we can also create opportunities for social connection between people of different ages. 

For example, as we highlight in the report, Calgary situated one of its pop-up fitness gyms next to a playground, making it convenient for people to access and allowing parents and grandparents to enjoy their workout while their kids play. 

And in Toronto, our Walk in the Park program trains older adults to create and lead walking clubs through parks in their own neighbourhood. This provides people a safe, welcoming space for physical activity and exploration of parks and trails in their neighbourhood, but it has also helped create new friendships and a greater sense of belonging. 

In fact, the number of people that reported feeling a strong connection to their local community more than doubled from the start of the program. 

Get ready for pickleball

Quick, what’s one of the fastest growing sports? Nope, not baseball. It’s a game called pickleball and it has become a sensation south of the border and here in Canada as well.

The game, which is played with a paddle and wiffle ball, is low impact sport that prioritizes finesse over speed and power, making it a particularly good sport for older adults to play.

This fact made pickleball one of the most common recreation trends we heard from cities in our Canadian City Parks Report. Demand is high, necessitating some quick planning from cities on how to support this new sport. Some, like Waterloo, are even looking into converting existing tennis courts into pickleball courts. 

Oh, and that name? It comes from a dog named Pickles, who kept stealing the wiffle ball from the first folks who played the game back in 1965.

Reduce barriers to learning

Putting outdoor gym equipment in a park does not automatically mean that people are going to use it. Sometimes just learning the rules or a new technique can be enough to keep people from trying something new. 

Some cities, like Prince George, are helping people overcome this by creating supportive social environments through a “try-it” fitness program. This program encourages people to try different recreational activities in a judgement-free setting, like tai chi, learning to run, and yes, pickleball. 

Calgary takes a similar track with its pop-up fitness gyms, which brings outdoor equipment to different parks across the city and are geared towards folks over the age of 65. The program includes free fitness instruction to help boost people’s confidence in using the equipment and promote social activity. 

And in Saskatoon, the River Landing Outdoor Fitness Circuit, which has great views of the South Saskatchewan River, includes wheelchair-accessible equipment and instructional plaques to encourage everyone to participate, no matter their ability or comfort level. 

Keep it simple

But you don’t necessarily need fancy equipment to get people moving outdoors. 

Research from the RAND Corporation’s neighbourhood parks study found that a huge predictor of how active people were in a park was whether there was a walking loop or not. The study found that parks with walking loops had 80% more park users and that people observed engaging in at least moderate exercise was 90% higher than in parks without walking loops. 

This aligns with what we found in our Canadian City Parks Report, where cities across the country reported that walking trails were one of the amenities frequently asked for by residents in parks. 

If you found this helpful, find even more inspiration from across the country on the topics of growth, nature, activation, collaboration, and inclusion by reading the Canadian City Parks Report.


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