Do you remember going to the park as a youngster? You know that time before you were too cool to go with your parents and would instead hang out with your friends not doing much/drinking/smoking/*insert illicit activity here*? Depending on where you lived, your local recreation ground was either a gigantic green space where you could run, fall, tumble and take part in all manner of games and activities your imagination would permit, or it had the treasured apparatus such as jungle gyms, seesaws, monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, slides etc. You may not have realised it back then but those were the early stages of your strength and conditioning routines. Sure you didn’t keep track of reps and your rest periods probably varied greatly, but you were inadvertently keeping yourself in shape and building strength/flexibility/power, in those growing muscles, tendons and ligaments of yours.
On top of that you were probably getting a good cardio workout as well. Ever notice how kids playgrounds are not the best place to quietly sit and read a book? Running around and shouting at the top of your lungs is not necessarily efficient, but definitely a type of conditioning that is transferrable to just about any team sport. Whilst at school you probably joined some teams, took part in PE/gym (unless you were one of those kids who always seemed to forget their kit….) and generally looked after your growing body through these activities. These numbers tend to dwindle once we see people reaching university/college age although Unis have a ton of societies and teams to keep people enjoying their chosen sports but then you graduate and…..BAM.
No more societies, no more teams, but you enjoy playing sports/keeping fit and want to keep it up so you join a gym/recreational club and try to strike a balance between working and ‘working out’. Put your hand up if you’ve ever joined a gym, been paying for your monthly membership and attended less than three times a week, regularly, every month? Were you too busy at work, always tired from other responsibilities, or did the idea of going into a large room and putting your body through a series of unnatural exercises, just not float your boat? Let’s set aside the change in your diet and general activity habits (drinking, smoking, more hours sitting at a desk, driving instead of walking, the list is pretty long) that will compound the situation. Can you look back on your exercise habit history and see how it may have evolved from doing something you really enjoyed, to almost a chore? It took me a long time to realise that I didn’t enjoy going to the gym, in the traditional sense, because my fitness experiences, up until that point, had been having fun jumping around park playgrounds and then ‘graduating’ into organised team sports, where I always had a coach, teammates, and often trained outside (yes even in UK weather). On top of all that, the thing I most enjoyed it that I was moving around using my entire body in what felt like a very natural way. I wasn’t stationery and moving a weight, it was myself against gravity (the eternal foe), my imagination and, occasionally, the ground!
On the morning runs around Suan Luang, and to a lesser extent on Legian Beach, I’m stunned to see so many people taking part in exercise this early (before 0600) in the morning, certainly not a sight I’m accustomed to back in the UK. In Suan Luang I took particular note of the high number of elderly people engaging in fitness activities from running/walking to outdoor group classes and even use of the basic outdoor gym you see pictured throughout this post. Whilst at Sitsongpeenong, I only ran the park every other day but I saw the same faces and they genuinely appeared to be enjoying themselves as they went through their morning routines in the Bangkok humidity, but before the morning sun had risen. This really struck me and got me pondering an idea that I’ve seen executed sparingly, but I think has a real place for application across many countries.
When you hear the phrase ‘adult playground’, this probably conjures up salacious images not at all in keeping with what I am getting at, but I’m going to use the phrase to describe what I see as a relatively new fitness approach and method. As a major subscriber to a fitness model based primarily around calisthenic movements, I see the adult playground as the perfect setting for us to get back to making fitness fun, natural, and holistic in it’s application. Anyone with an internet connection will have had the chance to notice the proliferation of videos and workout routines highlighting the benefits of the calisthenic method, often offering training services and/or exercise routines – think BarStarzz, CalisthenicsKingz, Spartanfam, and Gymnastic Bodies (my personal favourite). One of the barriers to following this approach, that I have found, is that the basic equipment required for the full repertoire of calisthenic exercises, is not commonly available for adults in gyms or public parks, with the exception being Singapore.
What kind of apparatus am I talking about? Pull-up bars, padded/rubber flooring, parallel bars, vertical ladders (for adults over 1.60m in height), horizontal bars (for jumping), boxes (for….box jumps), monkey bars, adjustable gymnastic rings, and an unobstructed wall. OK I know it does not sound like I described much of a playground but I believe this equipment can be arranged in such a way that you’d be having a much more enjoyable experience than a conventional gym and best of all it would be FREE to use. The aforementioned are what I would consider the basic equipment requirements but can be expanded upon and easily placed in a park area. Again, outside of Singapore (typically you will see areas have some, but not all of the equipment listed) I haven’t seen a design like this for adults, only children.
Correct form would still be required for safety reasons, as well as maximal returns, but trust me when I say that you will see tremendous results from doing regular exercises on this equipment vs. the leg press machine, dumbbell flyes, or the (useless) ab crunch machine. As I said there are a lot of instructional videos on YouTube and most people have access to a plethora of fitness coaches/PTs who can give advise on correct execution, advise on progressions and offer up further challenging exercises.
One criticism I see levelled at proponents of calisthenic fitness is that they do not have/train legs. Well firstly I can verify that they have legs and they even train them without the use of the ubiquitous ergonomic leg machines you see in gyms, or the blessed Olympic barbell. Let me just stop right here and say I LOVE training front squats, deadlifts, snatch, power cleans, good mornings, hang cleans full clean and jerk, as well as about any other variation of the Olympic lift training protocol. Their advantages are well documented (with correct form, training program and supervision) and the legs/trunk of anyone who trains these movements are truly impressive in strength and composition. However, there are plenty of calisthenic exercises that will deliver incredible leg workouts and leave you capable of seriously impressive feats such as the pistol squat. Another difference between the playground and the gym is that you won’t be able to have your spin/bodycombat/yogalates class here. This is not meant to be a one-size fits all method and there will be many times when a gym is the correct place for your to pursue your fitness goals, besides I always prefer to go to a restaurant that has a smaller menu but does the food really well, rather than an establishment attempting to deliver food that isn’t really for them.
Now I’m asking YOU, the reader, what are your thoughts? Do you prefer going to the gym or does the adult playground carry greater appeal? Have we lost some of the fun of exercise through all the science, safety and sanitation that comes with structures and profits? What would be your own personal barriers to exercising in this way (climate, accessibility, schedule)?Check out Berlin’s Preußenpark for an amazing example of a playground designed for seniors aged 70 and over!