Sustainable Cities™

Beijing: Exercise opportunities for all

The Chinese government has built upon the 'Olympic fever' created by the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to encourage physical activity around the country. Installations of outdoor exercise equipment for public use have made physical activity more accessible and more appealing to a wide range of the Chinese population.

Med deres stærke farver minder Beijings udendørs idrætsfaciliteter mest af alt om legepladser. Foto venligst udlånt af Alex Balfour

Since 1998, the Chinese government has created approximately 4,000 outdoor gyms in Beijing. Available to residents and visitors alike, these facilities can be found throughout the city's parks, streets, and other public areas. The national and municipal governments have promoted these facilities through public events such as the annual National Fitness Day and Beijing Olympic City Sports Culture Festival.

With the exception of their bright colors, the outdoor exercise machines resemble the exercise equipment that is popular in private, indoor gyms. Unlike standard exercise equipment, however, the outdoor machines harness an individual's body weight instead of using electricity to create resistance and can therefore be used by a wide range of gym-goers. These machines are easy to install, can be left outside in inclement weather, and are virtually maintenance free.

Would-be gym-goers often site accessibility and affordability as two of the most significant barriers to regular physical activity, so the outdoor gyms are noteworthy for compelling more people to exercise more often. The outdoor exercise facilities include both machines that stretch and strengthen various muscle groups and machines that improve cardiovascular endurance, so they provide the same work-out available at a private gym. But since these machines are free to use, they appeal to the vast majority of the Beijing population for whom the high cost of joining a private fitness club is prohibitive.

People of all ages use Beijing's outdoor gyms. Photo by jacksonwood 4 November 2007, Flickr Creative Commons

For other Beijing residents, using the public exercise equipment represents a transitional stage between not exercising regularly and joining a fitness club. Above all, these facilities are intended to improve the health of city residents by helping individuals to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.

The outdoor gyms also afford a number of secondary social benefits. Helping to animate the urban landscape, these machines represent yet another way for people to enjoy Beijing's public spaces. Outdoor exercise has helped youths and elderly in particular to connect with others and to create communities within their city.

There also exists an economic benefit from promoting a culture of physical activity in Beijing. The sports industry is just beginning to emerge in China, boosted in large part by the excitement surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Nonetheless, this industry still accounts for only 0.5 percent of China's total GDP, compared to 1 to 3 percent in most developed countries and 4 percent in the United States. Making the public excited about exercise will help this sector to grow in China.

Perhaps most importantly, the positive externalities created by a fit population that cares about its physical health are enormous. Healthier citizens can translate into a healthier civil society.

London follows Beijing's lead

In preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, British municipal governments are working with private sponsors to create outdoor exercise facilities in the five host boroughs and beyond. The sporting goods company Adidas, a sponsor of the 2012 London Olympics, is helping to create adiZones, public fitness facilities arranged in the shape of the 2012 Olympic logo. The first "adult playground" opened in central London's Hyde Park in May 2010.

Outdoor exercise facilities in Denmark

Municipal governments in Denmark are beginning to follow the outdoor exercise trend. For example, in Ballerup Municipality, a region located about 20 kilometers northwest of Copenhagen, facilities have been installed near five different residential areas, and city planners are working with businesses in Ballerup to install additional facilities near workplaces. The project is part of a long-term effort to focus on public health in Ballerup Municipality, with an emphasis on voluntary participation in healthy activities. City planners want to ensure that "the healthy choice" is also "the easy choice," so improving the accessibility of exercise facilities is a central part of this initiative.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014