Like solitary sentinels they stand alone in parks, recreation areas, and along countless trails throughout America. Consisting of an assortment of balance beams, chinning bars, parallel bars, and stretching posts in various configurations, these individual exercise stations -- collectively known as a par course -– are probably among the most practical, yet least used, fitness amenities anywhere.
The par course was originally designed for outdoor interval training to accommodate broadscale community or group fitness. It is also an excellent decorative enhancement with its natural timberform construction. The individual exercise stations are usually installed at fixed intervals several hundred feet apart in a linear or looping circuit so that participants can walk or jog from one station to the next where they can perform a variety of designated exercises involving stretching, balance, agility, and strength.
Each station is accompanied by a written description showing how to perform the exercise, together with figures showing the exercise from start to finish. Some stations might feature a simple freestanding calisthentic or stretching movement while others might feature a specific exercise on the timberform apparatus. The exercises are easily adaptable for all ages and can be modified to accommodate individual fitness levels and physical limitations.
Older adults appreciate the outdoor ambience of the par course and its relative simplicity. The figures depicting each exercise are large and easy to understand, and the matching descriptions are written in large, easy-to-read fonts. The par course can be executed at any pace – fast or slow – and adapted entirely to how the participants feel that day. They can jog or walk briskly from station to station or just amble along at a comfortable pace. They can even skip a station if they think it is too rigorous or too challenging for them. Some seniors might use the par course stations only as "rest stations" to catch their breath at regular intervals along the course while still benefiting from walking.
Although the par course is constructed in many communities because of its simplicity, aesthetic appearance, and modest cost of installation, it too often goes largely unused by local residents - probably because they are usually not in good physical condition and think they might be embarrassed attempting to perform even the simplest exercise in such an open and exposed environment. But the fact is that, most of the time, nobody is looking and who cares anyway? Sometimes exercising with an exercise buddy, in small groups, or even with small children can overcome any temporary shyness for beginners and help them to get started.
The par course can be a nice change of pace for diehard fitness enthusiasts too. It offers a challenging workout that can easily be intensified to different degrees of difficulty by simply progressing more quickly from one station to the next, increasing the number or repetitions at each station, or wearing "spats" (or other weighted wear) while performing the par course circuit. Even performing the course backwards can add a different dimension.
The par course is a great way to stay in shape and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Travelers to small towns and rural areas can often find a convenient par course when a gym is not available. Rain or shine, the wooden sentinels stand there waiting for anyone to brave the elements and show their mettle. Any takers?
Jim Evans is a 41-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and internationally recognized fitness consultant.