Looking like multi-coloured adult playgrounds, outdoor gyms have taken off in a big way around London over the last decade. From major parks to small greens — even bits of wasteland — pull up bars, chest presses and slightly unconvincing arm spinning machines are now a common sight in the city’s outdoor spaces. But who uses them?
If you indulged in one too many mince pies over Christmas and are feeling inspired by all those "new year, new you" weight-loss ads on social media, you might just be thinking of joining a gym. And why pay £50 a month getting fit when you can do it for free in the great outdoors? Well, it’s a cold, damp January, for one.
"The one at London Fields becomes like Muscle Beach in summer"
"I don’t have time for an indoor gym,: says Max, who I interrupt in the middle of his leg press session in Chestnuts Park, north London. "Outdoor gyms are good on the way home from work," he adds — somewhere to stop in at during the commute, rather than having to go out of his way for.
The same goes for Sean and Jack, two friends using the bars at the nearby Lordship Recreation Ground. "There are none in zone 1 where I work” explains Jack, but it's easy enough to find pull up bars further out of town when coming home from the office.
The pair tell me there are two distinct tribes that use the equipment. Families, elderly people and more casual users go for the moveable equipment, whereas body builders almost exclusively use the calisthenics bars. "You’ll definitely find lots of posers on the bars" laughs Sean, "the one at London Fields becomes like Muscle Beach in summer".
The outdoor gym flexes its muscles
The Great Outdoor Gym Company, which installs the majority of London's moving equipment (leg presses or cross trainers for instance, as opposed to stationary pull up bars) says it's built 180 facilities in the capital, while the website Calisthenics Parks lists 116 spots where you'll find standalone bars for dips and pull-ups.
Although there have long been some bits of equipment in parks, the emergence of more extensive facilities started in 2007. Back then, councils were inspired by the trendy policy idea of 'nudging' people to do healthy things, rather than simply ordering them. Put a gym in a park, the idea goes, and it might encourage people to do a workout they wouldn't have otherwise. And research seems to suggest outdoor gyms do indeed have a (smallish) positive impact on public health.
"In the indoor gym, it's overcrowded"
Outdoor gyms are pretty egalitarian places. At the facilities I visit on a chilly January afternoon, I meet a whole range of people from different backgrounds, countries, income brackets and age groups. From students to asylum seekers to a 77-year old dog walker, these al fresco alternative attract a real cross-section of society. That said, they are pretty blokey — a good 80-90% of people I see using them are men.
Understandably, not everyone wants to exercise in front of an audience. But there are benefits, aside from thriftiness. "It is nice to do your workout in a beautiful environment and surrounded by nature" explains Yaman, after showing me some pull-ups at Ducketts Common opposite Turnpike Lane station. Looking around, I'm not sure we're in the capital's prettiest spot. But Yaman is not alone in enjoying outdoor workouts.
Tony, a West-Indian using the pull up bars in Finsbury Park, assures me that working out in the fresh air is healthier than an air-conditioned room, while Ben, who uses the nearby machines says he hates working out indoors for much the same reason. Simon, a Venezuelan using the bars in Islington's Elthorne Park adds: "In the indoor gym, it's overcrowded, and you have to queue up to use the machines."
"I'm on first name terms with the other users"
Having interrupted several users in the middle of their workouts I can safely say they're a friendly lot, and in the nine gyms I visit across north London, almost everyone highlights the social side of the facilities.
Paul, who started using the machines after he hurt himself in aerobics classes, points out that it's another way of expanding your social circle. "I've made buddies and am on first name terms with some of the other users," he tells me while doing chest presses at Whittington Park, off Holloway Road.
Meanwhile, Michael, another user of the Calisthenics Bars at Finsbury Park, explains: "it's a good place for people to come together". So much so that he runs classes that use these kinds of outdoor equipment with 4D Motus, his fitness training outfit.
"I come for an hour every day when the weather is good"
If you aren't super buff and happy in spandex, traditional gyms can feel a little intimidating. Their outdoor counterparts seem an awful lot more welcoming by comparison. "When you go to [an indoor] gym, it's all the same 25-40-year-old demographic” says Chris, while warming up his legs for a run round Finsbury Park. "Here it’s nice to see young families, or mums who stop in for a bit of exercise out for a walk with their kids".
Alice, who uses the arm machines at Chestnuts Park on her weekend workout adds that she sometimes sees "girls from certain communities who might not feel comfortable going to [a traditional indoor] gym where you have to be dressed in a certain way".
They also seem like friendly arena of exercise for older people. Ha Yin Chan, an elderly lady who heads down to Ducketts Common four or five times per week explains "It's for anybody".
Anthony, a fighting fit 70-year-old I also meet at Ducketts Common makes me feel rather weedy: "I come for an hour every day when the weather is good," he says.
"The NHS is over-stretched as it is"
Besides getting fit, some of the users point to the wider benefits of this kind of equipment. Says Alice at Chestnuts Park, "The NHS is over-stretched as it is, so they're trying to get us fit to avoid stretching it even further."
Meanwhile, Vincent, who visits the Finsbury Park outdoor gym, points to the mental health benefits: "It helps when geezers are coming home from work. If you're stressed and got to deal with the kids, it's a good way of relaxing".
The gyms can benefit people in unexpected ways, too: Steel Warriors is a group that melts down illegal knives and turns them into callisthenics parks.
Adds Vincent, philosophically, "parks are for the people".