Outdoor Park Gyms: The Good, The Bad and the Smoking-Optional

Trainer Tony Kurkowski gives a thumbs up this piece of fitness equipment | Brenda Rees


“Did you see? Over there?” asks Tony Kurkowski as he looked in the direction of a man who had been working out on the colorful outdoor fitness equipment at Sycamore Park in Highland Park. The exerciser was walking off  after his workout with a cigarette dangling in his mouth. “Well, I guess that’s another benefit of exercising outdoors – you can smoke!”

Indeed, there are many reasons to work up a sweat at the numerous free outdoor gymnasiums found in various city and county parks – especially after the Thanksgiving holidays. Adult fitness parks encourage residents to get their muscles moving with an easy and accessible workout. After all, why should playgrounds only be for kids?

The equipment is free of use but does not come cheap. For example, the city’s Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners recently approved spending $100,000 for new outdoor fitness equipment at Bellevue Park in Silver Lake. While professionals advise that while these outdoor exercise zones offer many pluses, they have limitations.

“You can get a good workout here, but these parks are not a replacement for a gym,” says Kurkowski, a personal trainer with Equinox in Santa Monica.

A transplant from the Midwest, Kurkowski likes the idea of SoCal’s year-round outdoor gyms. “I often give my clients ‘homework,’ and they can do them in such a beautiful setting,” he says surveying the exercise station landscape at Marsh Park in Elysian Valley.

Not all the equipment got good reviews | Brenda Rees

For those new to working out, these outdoor parks offer an idea about what to expect out exercising. “They are great for people who may be a little intimidated to go to a gym at first,” Kurkowski said. “Plus, you can see how these locations would be great for mommy groups, older people and parents. The socialization aspect. That’s huge.”

Earlier, Kurkowski was at Eagle Rock Park’s fitness center which was bustling with activity: elderly Asian couples were on the elliptical treadmill getting a mild cardio workout. A trio of young adults was using attaching elastic bands to pullup bars to strengthen upper bodies with rows and triceps presses.

“There’s a lot of good stations here,” said Kurkowski.  He praised the rowing machine — “We are a culture that sits too much, and anything to work our back is great” and the decline benches — “not just for sit-ups, but squats and pushups, too” — and the pullup bars. The cardio machines, however, are “worthless,”  he said. “You are not going to get your heart rate up and burn fat on these things,” he says. “Much better if you do a brisk walk or a series of squats.”

Decline benches were good for sit-ups, squats and pushups | Brenda Rees

The stair (or mountain) climber was problematic since it was created for a specific height. “These machines are not adjustable, which is a big downside,” says Kurkowski who found that also to be true on the recumbent bike at Sycamore Park. The four-person leg press there also presented a potential injury issue: the exercise (squat) needs to be performed so knees don’t go over the toes. Here, however, the static nature of the equipment makes it impossible if you have long legs.

In addition, few machines at all the exercise parks incorporate a balance, which is necessary for a well-rounded exercise regimen, say Kurkowski. Overall muscle building and strength training is very limited.

While most of these exercise parks feature the same, new smooth-handled equipment stations, Kurkowski was delighted to see the old school exercise pit at Eagle Rock Park. “If I was teaching a boot camp I would do it here because this stuff is great,” he says showing the many exercises for the parallel bars.

Overall, Kurkowski stressed that while these centers may have their downsides, the benefits are many.

“Sure, they don’t compare to a gym but they are close to home and don’t cost you anything,” he says. “I would encourage people to, if they don’t know how to use the machines, to get with a trainer to learn proper techniques. That way you will get the most of the exercise and that it is the best use of your time.”

Old School excercise pit still offers a good workout | Brenda Rees

Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock

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