Playgrounds for Seniors? A Growing Trend

When most people think of their golden years, they don’t envision themselves going to a playground daily. They think about idly sitting on bench feeding birds and squirrels, playing bingo and chess, and silver hair blowing in the breeze from a front porch rocking chair. Well, this is the golden years 2.0, and it involves a playground.

A Playground For Seniors?

Adult outdoor fitness areas, also called senior playgrounds, geriatric parks, and geriatric fitness zones, are growing in popularity across the world. These are unique, tailored fitness areas where seniors can go to ensure a well-rounded workout.

China blazed the path for the idea of outdoor spaces for adults to use outdoor fitness equipment. After passing a law creating a nationwide fitness program, China’s first senior citizen playground popped up in 1995. General-use parks also started including equipment specifically geared toward China’s aging and adult populations. Visitors from all over the world took note and brought the novel idea back home with them.

By 2003, Finland began designing senior playgrounds and implementing numerous studies to measure the results. One study was by The University of Lapland, which followed 40 seniors between the ages of 65 and 81 for three months of regular workouts at a senior playground. Researchers found universal improvements in balance, speed, and coordination amongst the group.

In 2004, Japan followed suit with what they dubbed Nursing Care Prevention Parks. Germany, Canada, South Korea, England, the U.S., and others soon had their own senior citizen playgrounds. Barcelona alone has over 300 elderly parks today.

While the specific playground equipment varies from park to park, the idea here is to offer activities and equipment to seniors that promote strength, flexibility, and aerobic activity via low-impact sources. Cross-trainers, stationary bikes, elliptical machines, body flexors, treadmills, sit-up machines, seesaws, swings, rope bridges, balance beams, and even adult-sized jungle gyms are just a few of the types of equipment being seen at these adult playgrounds.

Why Do Seniors Need A Playground?

It’s recommended for all adults to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. Yet, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services reports that less than 34 percent of adults ages 65 to 74 are physically active, and only 35 to 44 percent of those 75 and up are active. As a result, and despite living longer lives, the elderly population has seen escalating health care costs, greater loss of independence, poorer health, and greater risk of elderly depression.

While research shows that older adults generally understand the positive impacts exercise can have on their physical and psychological health, the barriers they have often prevail as a stronger influencer than the benefits. Why?

For many seniors, age brings about many barriers that cause a reluctance, indifference, and fear of traditional exercise. Most seniors live on a budget and don’t necessarily have the resources for gym memberships, trainers, and so forth. Physical limitations, slower movements, and appearance changes may make some seniors feel self-conscious in a gym full of younger peers. Seniors often report fear of injury as another reason they avoid typical exercises at a gym.

These deterrences are where senior parks come into play. Unlike many other sources of exercise, these senior parks are free; easily accessible; and designed to offer low-impact, realistic forms of exercise to best benefit seniors. Some are even designed to accommodate seniors with limited mobility and those in wheelchairs.

A study published by Bio Med Central looked at 55 seniors living near the Dongning Park and Xihu Park, which both have adult outdoor fitness equipment. It found that almost 80 percent reported they used the parks for daily exercise, over 10 percent used the parks around three times per week, and 9 percent twice per week.

Benefits Of Senior Playgrounds

The design of these senior playgrounds offers seniors a plethora of benefits beyond just getting in that 30-minute threshold of exercise.

Flexibility and strength exercise equipment, for example, can improve balance and prevent falls. Flexibility and range of motion exercises help seniors retain the ability to perform activities of daily living, which keeps them living independently longer.

The group gathering aspect serves as a form of socialization for seniors, which can nurture mental health and ward off feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Unlike gyms, these adult playgrounds also offer exposure to green space. Research shows green space promotes more physical activity and has innumerable psychological benefits, including creative thinking and stress and anxiety reduction. Such psychological benefits are paramount in warding off everything from depression to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The U.S. Approach To Senior Playgrounds

In other countries, the majority of senior playgrounds are endeavors developed and run by local governments. This hasn’t really happened in the U.S. Thus far, most of the adult playgrounds are products of private senior living communities and centers. As senior retirement hotspots, Florida, Georgia, and Texas actually have quite a few senior playgrounds.

There’s also a movement in the U.S. for multigenerational playgrounds that have both traditional kid areas and adult fitness stations.

For almost a decade, KaBOOM! and the Humana Foundation have partnered to build dozens of these multigenerational playgrounds across the country to bring people of all ages together in activity, and it’s an effort that’s paying off.

Sarah Pinsky, Director of Client Services at KaBOOM!, says that one of their multigenerational playgrounds in Cleveland resulted in local seniors forming a fitness club. Pinsky also described how several of the multigenerational playgrounds in Florida had revitalized what had been all but unused playgrounds; the playgrounds are all now regularly packed with children, teens, adults, and seniors.

The first of the baby boomer generation turned 65 back in 2011, and they’ve already redefined aging with everything from later marriages and longer careers to being the primary reason that the 2010 U.S. Census Report estimated the number of Americans 65 and older will reach 88.5 million by 2050. By the way, Spain’s percentage of retirees by 2050 is expected to be almost half the population.

With the innovation of adult parks, this trailblazing 2.0 generation of seniors might just be the ones to redefine fitness for older adults, too. From end benefits like reduced health care costs and prolonged independent living, creating these parks to keep seniors physically and mentally healthy is an investment that could pay off across all generations.