Two facilities share their thoughts on the staying power of outdoor programming.
While people have been exercising outside for ages, the pandemic has heightened the need for community recreation centers to have outdoor spaces.
In the American College of Sport Medicine annual worldwide survey, outdoor activities ranked fourth out of 41 possible trends for 2021. In a large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more outdoor activities such as walking, biking and hiking have become popular. With this in mind, fitness facilities across the globe have begun constructing outdoor fitness areas to cater to members’ wants and needs.
Like many other facilities in the U.S., the JCC of Greater Baltimore closed in-person operations on March 15, 2020. They began a virtual platform almost immediately but were preparing to come back to in-person fitness as soon as they were given the OK. In June 2020, the J was allowed to resume operations for outdoor fitness only.
Amy Schwartz, the senior director of Park Heights JCC Fitness — a JCC of Greater Baltimore location — said they scheduled group fitness classes under a large tent with a maximum of 10 participants. Plus, they had fitness opportunities under a pavilion for their members who regularly used the fitness center. “The classes grew even as we were allowed to go back indoors,” she explained. “Our outdoor classes remained until the end of October 2020 when it just got too cold to continue.”
During the winter months of 2020, a local family foundation became interested in helping the J expand and take the outdoor fitness classes to the next level. Schwartz explained they took over a tennis court and had a 40-by-60 sport court surface installed. They purchased a tent to protect members from the elements and installed an outdoor sound system to improve member experience.
The outdoor space — named the Bearman Outdoor Fitness Studio — has gone over well with members at the Park Heights J. A variety of classes are offered outdoors including strength, cardio, flexibility, balance and various Group X classes.
Schwartz said members have loved the outdoor option and she hopes this is just the beginning of their outdoor operations. “We plan to use the Bearman Outdoor Fitness Studio from April to October every year,” she said. “Our members love being outdoors. I see this remaining a part of what we offer, and I hope we will continue to expand.”
It did so as a way to engage, connect and support the community. Both of the JCC locations are on big campuses, so space wasn’t an issue. Stephen Gray, the director of fitness and aquatics at the Prosserman J, said they knew that after spending months alone at home, their community would be receptive to the offering — and they were.
The Prosserman J offered a combination of group exercise classes — which was typically complimentary to members — and small group training programs such as small group boot camp and yoga.
“[Outdoor fitness classes] help us provide more value to our members, especially for those unable or not ready to return indoors yet,” said Gray. “They also offer the ability to showcase more of our facilities and campus, while bringing new life to old/regular programming.”
While the Prosserman J has had success with outdoor operations during the pandemic, Gray said it’s unlikely for their facility to offer a permanent outdoor offering since they are located in Toronto, Ontario.
“It’s very hard to build and service an outdoor facility during the cold months, which make up half of our calendar year,” explained Gray. “We are however exploring some tenting and infrastructure options to make the most of our spring and summer months as we know things could still be dicey in 2022 and want to be ready to have all options available. If the pandemic has taught us anything, the more space you have and the more options you can make available, the better off your organization will be.”
While your facility may not be able to implement a permanent outdoor fitness area, it’s clear the expectation of having outdoor offerings isn’t going away anytime soon.
“I see outdoor programming continue to become a regular part of most fitness operations when applicable with weather and space,” said Gray. “It’s hard to forecast where the pandemic is going, but being ready with as many offerings as possible will only help strengthen your brand and gain good traction from the community in return.”
Photo courtesy of the JCC of Greater Baltimore.