Was one of your new year’s resolution to exercise more? If yes, where have you been doing your exercise routines? Nowadays, many people immediately think of private gyms like LA Fitness or 24 Hour Fitness as the most effective and/or popular places to get fit. But as we all know, gym membership is not cheap and not everyone can afford it. As part of my research as a doctoral student and my work as a park planner, I have learned that the median household incomes in a number of urban unincorporated communities (like Florence-Firestone, Lennox, East Los Angeles, and Willowbrook) in Los Angeles County are well below the countywide median ($55,909 in 2013). This suggests that many residents are more likely to rely on free or lower-cost options for recreation and exercise because they simply have little or no money to spend on amenities and programs offered by private recreational facilities. So what opportunities are there for those do not have the means to join a private gym?
Parks and Trails
Obviously, public parks and recreational facilities are places where people can exercise for free. Two of my favorites are Arcadia Park (where I jog or walk) and Loma Alta Park (where I play basketball). In recent years, there have been efforts to maximize the use of existing parks by creating additional opportunities for physical activity at these facilities. For example, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has been working with the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit organization, to establish “Fitness Zones” at existing parks in underserved neighborhoods (watch this video). Fitness Zones are custom-designed installations of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment. The equipment resembles that found in private health clubs, but is free for all to use and is appropriate for a variety of ages and fitness levels. The exercise area is generally within or directly adjoining children’s play equipment so that the parent, grandparent, or caregiver can also exercise while watching the kids. Also, Fitness Zones, unlike private gyms, are “television-free areas” and do not promote individualization; when they are arranged so that the equipment is laid out into twos and threes, they can be “powerful communication spaces for strengthening friendships and for building community social capital” (Harnik, 2010, p. 35).
Recently, Dr. Deborah Cohen of the RAND Corporation completed a study to: 1) describe how well the TPL fitness equipment is used after installation, and to document which age, gender, race/ethnic groups use it, how often they use it, and whether they use it correctly; and 2) determine if more people use available park spaces (Fitness Zones plus all other activity areas in the park) and if they are more physically active compared to when the equipment was not available and to people in other parks without the equipment. This study of Fitness Zones in twelve parks in Los Angeles County revealed that Fitness Zones offer a cost-effective approach to increasing physical activity, attracting new users to parks, and increasing the estimated energy expenditure (among park users) in parks with the outdoor equipment. Please visit this website to find L.A. County park with Fitness Zones. For Fitness Zones at parks operated by the City of Los Angeles, go to this site.
Trails also offer opportunities for exercise and physical activity. The health and wellness benefits of outdoor recreation are both obvious and well-documented. Specifically, studies show that multi-use trails (hiking, mountain biking, equestrian) are growing in popularity, and are great ways for people to connect with nature while engaging in healthy physical activity. Recently, DPR in collaboration with various partners created a state-of-the-art trails website which gives L.A. County residents and visitors easy, user-friendly access to a variety of resources, including: a detailed list of trails that provides such vital information as trail length, elevation gain and permitted uses; individual accounts that allow users to rate, review and save personal notes on trails; a locator with the ability to search by city name, ZIP code, trail name or current location; interactive maps that enable users to view the steepness of or surface type on trails; a function to report trail-specific safety and maintenance concerns; information on safety guidelines and trail etiquette; and downloadable and printable QuickGuides that include trail maps, descriptions, directions, photos and elevation profiles.
Recreation can also take place in individual homes and is made possible in part through the use of home exercise equipment and increasingly, active video game systems. For example, nearly one in four Florence-Firestone adults exercises at home two or more times a week, according to ESRI Business Analyst data (please refer to page 124 of my doctoral project for more information). However, what they do for exercise is unclear because very few households in the community actually own home exercise equipment such as stationary bikes or treadmills. Some residents may choose to exercise at home because safety is a major concern in Florence-Firestone. Although generally small in size, I have observed that many front yards in residential areas are used as play areas for children and exercise areas for adults.
Recently, active video game systems have also been used as a means to exercise within homes. Nintendo Wii, for example, is an active video game console that uses wireless remote controls and motion sensors instead of joysticks and control pads. The best known game is probably Wii Sports which comes free with the console and allows players to play baseball, bowling, golf, tennis, and boxing. Another game, Wii Fit, is even used by some as a personal training or fitness tool. Studies have shown that active game systems do offer some potential health benefits. One study conducted in Liverpool, England concluded that playing active video games used significantly more energy than playing sedentary computer games but not as much energy as playing the sport itself (Graves et al, 2008, pp. 592-594). Also, the energy used when playing active Wii Sports games was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children. A more recent study by scientists at the University of Oklahoma was more positive and found that playing active video games could be as effective for children as moderate walking (Graf et al, 2008, pp. 534-540). While they do not recommend children stop playing outside or exercising, their research concludes that active video games offer a good alternative to moderate exercise for any children of today’s generation who are sedentary and at high risk for obesity and diabetes.
The City as a Gym
The city itself also serves as a free gym for all to use. Or as this laist article puts it, “the most popular gym in Los Angeles really is the city itself.” The article goes on to list the best non-gym workouts in L.A. such as hiking Los Liones Canyon, free yoga at Runyon Canyon Park, and stair climbs at various locations. As a downtown resident, I often see individuals and groups power walking or running on city streets, sidewalks, and stairs for exercise. For example, the Downtown Running Group meets every week to run along different routes in and around downtown. The group sets the length and pace of the routes to accommodate people of all running levels. Another article in the New York Times points out that L.A.’s “mild climate, the lack of parks in its more dense areas and the propensity here to treat fitness a bit like performance art combine to make Los Angeles a municipal force in the art of improvised exercise.” It then explains that the city looks like one giant gym, with people running on street medians, using picnic benches for bench presses, and doing aerobics or stretching on random patches of grass.
If you have a hard time visualizing how the city may be used a gym, I recommend that you check out this post which offers a do-it-yourself (DIY) guide on how to turn your city into your gym. Specifically, it explains the perspective and approach of Arne Schönewald, a born-and-raised Berliner, preventative and rehabilitative sports scientist, and athletic trainer, who sees the urban environment as the ultimate DIY gym for the everyman, and wants others to see it that way too. Be sure to look at the photos of him doing a variety of exercises at different locations in Berlin.
The YMCA is widely known today as a more affordable gym or recreational option for families. However, most know little about its history and some may not even know what the acronym stands for. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) is actually a historic example of the churches’ efforts to meet recreational needs. The YMCA was founded in London, England, in 1844, in response to unhealthy social conditions arising in the big cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution (starting in 1750). The YMCA used fitness as an evangelism tool to attract unruly men who would not attend Bible classes. The early leaders of the YMCA recognized the value of combining spiritual and physical health to strengthen the entire man, on the inside and outside. In 1860, over 200 American and Canadian YMCAs agreed on “the importance and necessity of a place of rational and innocent amusement and recreation for young men, especially in large cities and towns,” and resolved that “each local branch of the YMCA should build a gymnasium with all due haste” (Baker, 2007, p. 50). However, no gyms were immediately built due to the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, most YMCAs were still located in church basements or in some rented building; none of them had a gym. By 1890, however, about 400 YMCA gyms were created, half of which had paid supervisors of physical activity (Baker, p. 50). The YMCA lost some of its focus on physical fitness during the Depression and the decades that followed. But in the 1970s, the old health-and-fitness aspect returned to meet the wave of new interest in healthy lifestyles. By then, the YMCA was no longer a Christian evangelical organization at its core. The organization has since rebranded itself as simply “The Y” and “the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility” (YMCA, 2010).
Locally, the YMCA of Los Angeles offers 25 branches across L.A. County and has about 264,500 members. Membership is open to all, with financial assistance available to those who cannot afford it. Annually, the LA Y helps one out of three member families with financial assistance. To help members achieve personal fitness goals, the Y offers the following: fitness equipment orientations which show members how to use exercise equipment properly to ensure a great work out while avoiding injuries; individualized computer tracking system to monitor one’s progress; personal training and fitness coaching; and teen fitness programs through which teens learn proper exercise techniques and cardio/weight room etiquette, as well as the importance of a well-balanced fitness program that will help them become physically and mentally stronger.
Private gyms are good places to work out, but they certainly are not the only locations where exercise happens or where greater fitness is achieved. As I explained above, there are other options, including Fitness Zones at parks, multi-use trails, the city itself, and the Y, which are free or more affordable. These opportunities are especially important for children, the elderly, and residents in urban communities who want to exercise, but cannot afford the cost of membership to private recreational facilities.
Baker, WJ. (2007). Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Graf, DL, Pratt, LV, Hester, CN, & Short, KR. (2009). Playing Active Video Games Increases Energy Expenditure in Children. Pediatrics. 124(2), 534-540.
Graves L, Stratton G, Ridgers, ND, Cable, NT. (2008). Energy expenditure in adolescents playing new generation computer games. British Journal of Sports Medicine 42:592-594.
Harnik, P. (2010). Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. Washington: Island Press.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.