Faces of Public Health: Adrian Benepe
Expect a workout if you’re headed out to the park in a growing number of cities around the country. Not just from trails and bike paths, but from elliptical machines, chinning bars, stationary bikes and resistance equipment now installed in close to 100 parks. No gym membership card, or fees of any kind, required.
The burgeoning project, called Fitness Zones, is a program of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization. The “Zones” are installed at parks and recreation centers, using specially designed outdoor exercise equipment aimed at users of all ages. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Adrian Benepe, Senior Vice President and Director of City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, about the fast-paced growth and impact of the Fitness Zones.
NewPublicHealth: When are the chief goals of the Fitness Zone program?
Adrian Benepe: The Fitness Zone program is part of the Trust for Public Land’s Parks for People project and is aimed at urban parks. We have, just in the last three years, either created or are in the process of creating 81 Fitness Zones across the country. To establish a Fitness Zone, we work with public agencies, cities, county governments and parks departments to put together packages of public and private funding. In many cases we will do the design and installation ourselves.
The Fitness Zones function as free gyms. We aim to put them into areas where there is a high incidence of obesity and less opportunity to find or afford gym memberships. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to go to a gym and if they see their neighbors out there exercising, that can increase their motivation.
NPH: What differences do you need in design and installation for different geographic locations and climates?
Benepe: In a hot and dry climate you may put up a shade structure. And we are thinking about putting up some kind of a structure for colder regions that would function as shade in the summer and have solar panels on it for the winter that could generate heat.
NPH: What was your background before you joined the Trust for Public Land?
Benepe: I have worked in the parks sphere since high school, and just after graduating college I joined in full time. I worked at the New York City Parks Department for 27 of the last 33 years. I spent the last 10 years with the Parks Commission in New York City and six years before in charge of the parks in Manhattan. So I have a lot of experience in a very large park system, serving a very diverse audience and particularly a huge audience who doesn’t get to go out of the city in the summertime and who depends on the parks as their backyards, the places for public health, beaches for swimming and public pools. I am acutely aware of the multiple benefits of a good park that is safe and clean and promotes exercise. When the new Yankee Stadium was built we had to replace the park land that was taken away. We built a park that included a large exercise station next to a running track. It didn’t have any of these moveable parts; it had standard pull ups and chin-up bars. I was astounded to see how quickly it went into use and how diverse the users were. Such diverse groups of men and women of all ages came out to use it every day. So it was clear to me from just seeing that, that it sounds like a cliché, but if you build it and make it good then they will come.
NPH: What do you look for when scouting for new Fitness Zone locations?
Benepe: You have to make sure it is a neighborhood with critical mass. You need to look for density and make sure the Fitness Zone is in walking distance for people to get out and use it. It also needs to be taken care of by the park’s organization you are working with.
Other than that, there is unlimited potential for installing hundreds—if not thousands—of these across the country and we are doing some of that, but I think other cities, particularly ones that are well funded and capable, are doing that on their own. We have many more in the pipeline. We have a number of Fitness Zones in Florida and California that have been installed and we did a major renovation of a park in Newark, N.J. with help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. There are four coming up in Denver and we are looking at the possibility of doing some in the Twin Cities. We just keep adding to the number in place.
NPH: Would it be an option to create indoor spaces?
Benepe: Probably not. We are aiming at the outdoor parks. One of the problems with indoor recreation centers is that the equipment is much more complex and more expensive. The beauty of the Fitness Zones is that they are 100 percent free and the equipment that we use is extremely sturdy, it is meant to be outside, meant to take accidental and purposeful abuse and keep working. It is small, easily installed and relatively inexpensive. A fully installed Fitness Zone costs from $100,000 to $200,000, and the upper end is if it has a lot of bells and whistles. That’s about one-tenth the cost of a basic playground. You can put fitness zones in or next to playgrounds so adults can get exercise while watching their children play and you can have teenagers and adults and seniors all exercising side-by-side. It encourages multi-ethnic, multi-generational diverse groups of exercise. I have seen three generations using the Zones at the same time: a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter all working together.
NPH: What are some of the standard pieces of equipment?
Benepe: You have the equivalent of the machines you will see in a gym: ellipticals and other types of walking machines. You also have machines that push against you and have air pressure devices that generate resistance. Then you have stationary chin-up, pull-up and sit-up benches and bars. The combination is pneumatically equipped resistance and weight bearing exercise equipment along with flexibility and muscle tone exercise machines. The typical Fitness Zone will have six to eight pieces of equipment. We just installed one in City Park in New Orleans that has 18 pieces of equipments, so it is a Super Fitness Zone. Part of it is under a structure, so it is shaded and away from the rain.
NPH: Who do you look to for partners?
Benepe: We look for about two-thirds of the cost to come from the public sector. We will try to help arrange that and lobby for bond issues or make the case for it. Since the zones are relatively inexpensive, many areas have capital budgets with the flexibility to put things like this in it. We will try to come up with a third of the funding and work locally to raise the funds. We will do the design and installation, which is usually a cost saver because we can do it quickly and efficiently. The local funding is from private endeavors, individual donors and foundations. Often we have had some success in getting funding from health organizations in various cities.
NPH: Who is your target audience?
Benepe: We target Fitness Zones to underserved communities, but we will work with any community. The larger goal is to get people out into parks and exercising. What I have found from talking to park directors throughout the country is that anything you can do to have a great diversity of use in a park is going to be a positive thing. The more people you have enjoying the park in a positive way, the less you have to worry about things such as vandalism and crime. And people who are not eating well or getting enough exercise can be addressed through the Fitness Zones. It is amazing that people come out and see other people exercising and there is sort of esprit de corps, literally and figuratively.
NPH: What impact do you envision of parents and children being active at the same time, on equipment aimed at each?
Benepe: It is a nice image of a child going up and down the slide while their parents are exercising next to them on a stationary bicycle or other piece of equipment. We just opened up a playground in Los Angeles, El Cereno playground. We worked with the city on the project. It has all of the things you would expect in a playground, but it also has the Fitness Zone equipment. A parent can now get exercise and a child sees this model of healthy behavior that they will pick up on.
NPH: Do you have good examples of an underserved area where the residents are coming out and using the Fitness Zones?
Benepe: Most of our installations so far are in poorer working class areas. Chances are in a place like L.A. there is not a gym right next door like there is in New York City, and if you can afford the gym you have to drive to it. I visited a Fitness Zone in Los Angeles County a few weeks ago in a neighborhood primarily composed of Asian immigrants. I was thrilled to see people of both genders and multi-generations filling up the area.
We are constantly on the lookout for partners, whether they are counties or private sectors or individuals. As these things go, $100,000 in the scheme of things is not a lot. You get a lot of bang for your buck. And it has tremendous potential for improving public health across the country.
>> Bonus Link: Watch a video from the Trust for Public Land on the impact Fitness Zone outdoor gyms are having in Los Angeles.