Outdoor gym at Woods Park
The outdoor gym at Woods Park in Lincoln was built in 2021. Lincoln Parks received the funding through FitLot, who had a sponsorship with AARP. Photo taken by Claire Peterson.

Maintaining a fit lifestyle by going to the gym is not affordable for some people. Many low-income communities don’t have the same access to gym equipment as higher-income communities. 

Local and state governments are trying to address this fitness inequity within their communities. Many, including Nebraska, are looking towards outdoor gyms as a solution. These outdoor gyms are close to the size of a normal playground, around 1,400 square feet, and include both stationary and moveable fitness equipment for cardio, strength, balance and flexibility. 

The National Fitness Campaign is a social enterprise and consulting firm based out of San Francisco dedicated to providing accessible fitness to every American while inspiring activity and obesity prevention. They are responsible for the new fitness court built on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. 

Founded in 1979 by Mitch Menaged, NFC first started building fitness courts for communities using wood and steel. By 2000, the company created over 10,000 courts, according to Executive Director Trent Mathias.

“Our mission is to bring people outside every day and make healthy communities,” he said. 

Fitness courts are most often placed in public parks where it is easy for anyone to access and is completely free. Those who can’t afford a gym membership or at-home workout equipment can come to these outdoor gyms to exercise.

Cities can apply for funding grants through NFC in order to build these courts in their communities. NFC shares more information annually with each state and encourages them to apply for grants. 

“We believe fitness should be free,” Mathias said. 

There are other organizations that do the same, such as FitLot, a New Orleans-based non-profit founded in 2013. Through community donations and sponsors like AARP, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Target, FitLot is able to pay the total cost for outdoor gyms. Its funding was responsible for the fitness court built at Woods Park in Lincoln. 

FitLot and NFC also encourage parks to host free and regular classes where a volunteer fitness instructor can show the participants how to use the equipment safely. The courts are based on circuit training with several exercises meant to be performed with minimal rest periods. Both FitLot and NFC are consistent with the gym design across states, so apps and instructional videos can be helpful anywhere. 

NFC has adapted its courts even more for the 21st century by offering an interactive app that shows users how to use the outdoor gyms in any state. They also collaborate with local artists to paint murals on the courts to make them more colorful and appealing in the community. 

Both NFC and FitLot have goals of creating outdoor gyms in every community in the U.S.

“Our goal is to build a fitness court within a 10 minute bike ride from every community,” Mathias said. 

The FitLot in Woods Park was part of a project to build an outdoor gym in every U.S state, according to Melissa Kirkland, director of the learning center at Lincoln Parks and Recreation. 

“It was a great fit for us at Lincoln Parks and Rec.,” she said. 

Since the park was built last year, Kirkland has seen great participation amongst community members. All ages can enjoy FitLot and she said it helps more families have access to fitness activity.

“It definitely provides more equity within our community with access to fitness equipment,” she said. 

Outdoor gyms are also beneficial because they encourage people to spend more time outdoors. People are comfortable outdoors, so exercise outside is natural and easy for most people, Kirkland said.

Woods Park has many walking paths and even tennis courts. Those who hangout at Woods will find the location of the FitLot convenient for their daily routine. This convenience and wellness inspiration was Lincoln Parks and Recreation’s aim with this project.

“Our mission is fundamental to active living for all,” Kirkland said. 

Outdoor gyms can offer a solution to fitness inequity, but it is most important to spread information across the country on wellness, according to Mathias. 

“The most important thing to do is advocate for fitness and wellness,” he said.

I am a senior journalism and French major at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.