Philly, We Need a Fitness Court

An amazing new public fitness facility that recently opened in San Francisco could come to Philly—if we want it enough.

“Stop the car!” I shrieked from the back seat as friends and I drove along the lovely waterfront Marina Green in San Francisco on Saturday. I’d gone out west for the long weekend (didja miss me?) and nearly dove out of the car when I caught sight of the city’s shiny new Fitness Court. It was around 10 a.m., so the thing was packed (I snapped the picture above later that day when the crowds had left), as runners, cyclists and friends out for a stroll stopped to do a quick circuit.

My friend, a local who happens to live in the neighborhood, told me the Court was relatively new, just a few months old. She said trainers go out there on weekends and run classes and boot camps, but it’s open all the time and anyone can hop on for a workout whenever they’d like. “It’s like an adult jungle gym,” she explained.

Of course, I was immediately jealous. Why don’t we have anything like this in Philly? Why does the West Coast get everything awesome, like Bradley Cooper (we want him back, by the way) and zero-humidity weather? I could think of thousands of Be Wellers who’d kill to have something like that available in Philly.

So when I got home on Monday, I did some digging. Turns out, the Fitness Court is part of the National Fitness Campaign, an organization which, in the 1980s, got 10,000 exercise jungle gyms erected in 4,000 cities across the country. The equipment was absolutely free to use.

I called campaign director Mitch Menaged, who told me he was the guy behind it all in the 80s, too. He worked to get the facilities in cities, drew the attention of everyone from mayors to governors to presidents, and after 10 years felt his mission was accomplished—at least, for the time being. Menaged went into real estate development in San Francisco and toiled away in the industry until two years ago, when he decided to get back into the fitness biz and resurrected the National Fitness Campaign.

His goals this time around are pretty much the same as 30 years ago—to get people moving by bringing free fitness to public spaces. But this time, he says, the stakes are just a little higher:

“Look at the state of health care in America. It’s virtually a train wreck. Our kids are probably going to be the first generation in four generations to live shorter lives than their parents. We have lost the understanding of the importance of fitness and nutrition. We’re working our way toward obesity, diabetes, heart attack. If we don’t do something about it we’re going to find ourselves in a terrible way. We’ll be sick and unhealthy and virtually bankrupt. It is imperative that we come together as a country and take responsibility for our health and fitness.”

The Fitness Court is Menaged’s way of helping us take that responsibility—or at least, take a step towards it. The San Francisco model I drooled over this weekend is the pilot project. Menaged and his team (who, by the way, are all unpaid volunteers) are using it to create buzz and momentum—and, hopefully, sponsorship dollars to get 10 more Courts in the Bay Area by the end of 2013. From there, he says, the campaign should propel itself, much like it did last time when city after city and mayor after mayor jumped on board to bring the 1980s model to their communities. At that time, the so-called Gamefields cropped up everywhere, from public spaces to university quads to public schools. Menaged has the same vision for the Fitness Court today.

The Fitness Court itself, I learned, is the product of a two-year research and design effort that included the former head of design of Hewelett Packard, a top design firm in San Fran, a body-weight training expert who trained Army Special Forces, and a team of engineers who specialize in building long-lasting, elements-withstanding outdoor structures. The outcome: A 34½-by-32-foot circuit-training system with built-in boxes, rings, bars and more that comprise seven workout stations. The total price tag is $150,000.

The stations are meant to accommodate a range of fitness levels—from grandmas to bodybuilders—by offering progressive training. So a pushup at one station can be modified several ways to make them easier or harder, depending on your ability. Menaged also says there’s a built-in audio system that can walk you through the exercises (literally, a button you push at the station) plus downloadable workouts that walk you through a workout over your headphones.

If I lived in San Fran, I’d skip the virtual instruction all together and plan my dates with the Fitness Court around the free training schedule, a few hours on the weekend when trainers will coach you through a circuit on site. Menaged says he hopes to get classes, boot camps and more going at the site every day—even several times a day.

That’s all fine and well for San Franciscans, but what about us Philadelphians. When can we expect to see a Fitness Court in our city?

Turns out, that’s kinda up to us. Once Menaged gets past the pilot stage and lines up some serious sponsors, they’ll move the program into cities as they see a need and desire, whether it’s at the behest of a gung-ho mayor (whatcha waiting for, Nutter?) or the prodding of the local community.

“It always starts with one person who really thinks this is the coolest thing since sliced bread and wants to be the local champion,” says Menaged. “Then we work with that person to make it happen.”

You also need a place to put the thing, of course. Menaged says the ideal location is one that’s “very active and very beautiful”—an iconic spot, perhaps, where it’ll get a lot of foot traffic and create some buzz. You know, the kind that makes people driving by yell “Stop the car!” at the top of their lungs. That kind.

“It’s not about one fitness court in Philly. One won’t do anything. There needs to be 50 fitness courts in Philly, in parks, neighborhoods and schools,” says Menaged. “But it starts with one.”

So here’s the question for you, Be Wellers: Where should we put it? Rittenhouse? Washington Square? Along the Schuylkill Banks? Right smack dab in the middle of the City Hall Plaza? (Yeah, right.) Tell us in the comments where you think a Fitness Court would thrive in Philly. God knows we need one.