At the new playground at the Marion Diehl Senior Center in Charlotte, N.C., a preschooler scampers up a giant rope net under the watchful eye of his mother. A few feet away, community resident Blanca Rivas performs leg presses on a neon-green exercise machine designed to withstand the elements.
“I love being outside,” says the 64-year-old, who is trying to shed a few pounds. “The sun helps you keep moving.”
Long popular in China, Japan and parts of Europe and Latin America, adult playgrounds are popping up across the U.S., from Portland, Ore., to Tomball, Texas, to New York City, as organizations and municipalities cater to the needs of an aging populace.
Hundreds of local and regional park systems have embraced the concept, especially in the South, where warmer temperatures beckon people outdoors most of the year. The playgrounds tend to feature low-impact, joint-friendly equipment.
They focus on promoting balance, flexibility and range of motion, all of which can help with the functional capabilities of older people and allow them to do more of the things they want to do,” says Cedric X. Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit based in San Diego that promotes physical fitness.
“When people exercise outdoors they are more apt to continue,” says Zarnaaz Bashir, vice president of health and wellness for the National Recreation and Park Association, based in Ashburn, Va. As an example of how parks-and-recreation departments have jumped on the trend, she points to the city of San Antonio, which initially planned to install outdoor gym equipment at 14 of its parks and now has equipment at 35 parks and five libraries.
It’s not just advocates of exercise who are pushing the idea. Nonprofits focused on underserved communities and better land management are behind it as well. In the past few years, KaBOOM, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that helps communities create play facilities, has built more than 50 multigenerational playgrounds at costs ranging from $25,000 to more than $100,000. (Corporate sponsors including Target Corp.and Humana Inc. help to foot the bill.) The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, meanwhile, has installed 68 outdoor fitness zones in public parks since 2012, and others are planned.
Body and mind
While playgrounds for adults can provide a number of benefits, it’s the potential impact on health that has most groups interested.
A Finnish study involving 40 people ages 65 to 81 who used a senior playground regularly over three months found significant improvements in balance, speed and coordination among the participants—abilities that can mean the difference between aging successfully in place or being unable to care for oneself in the later years of life.
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