Getting outside is just as important in youth as in old age, and that is why the senior exercise park research initiative began.
Senior exercise parks are multigenerational outdoor exercise equipment that incorporates exercise stations that target balance, function, movement, strength and a range of motion explicitly suited for older adults.
Senior exercise parks are not new to Asia and Europe, though they are scarce in New Zealand.
In Asia, outdoor exercise for seniors is ingrained, but Western countries have not fully grasped this concept yet. Lark Industries' managing director Harri Makela said senior exercise parks were first launched in Europe by Finnish company Lappset. The first request came from the Catalonian government in Spain, and physiotherapists and playground developers created it.
"We are spending more time indoors than what's good for us as humans," said Makela.
"So, the idea is to get people outdoors." The idea is not to replace gyms but to work hand in hand with them. It is common knowledge that spending time outdoors is more comfortable, allows one to socialise more, relax and get some fresh air.
"In a retirement village or aged care facility, there's space for indoor gyms, but senior exercise parks are designed to work in an outdoor environment," Makela explained.
The National Ageing Research Institute's principal researcher Professor Pazit Levinger adds that senior exercise parks offer another form of physical activity for those who might not like indoor gyms.
Given the current pandemic, Levinger notes these parks may also be a safer option for physical activity due to being outdoors.
"They are less high tech than gyms, but they exist for more reasons than exercise - it's the mental wellbeing and social gathering aspects that make them worthwhile."
Since installations began in 2006, there are now more than 1000 senior exercise parks in Catalonia - the largest concentration in Europe. So many are being built because the provincial government evaluated that every euro invested in these parks saves six euros in reduced hospitalisation. The provincial government then gives these parks to the local governments for free on the condition they have plans for training and use.
According to Makela, there are approximately 50 senior exercise parks in Australia, about 20 in retirement villages. Since 2006, Lark Industries has installed about four or five in New Zealand as well.
"They're becoming more popular, but we're only supplying one at a time," said Makela.
"There are a lot of things hindering the government's ability to adopt this type of thinking."
Makela claims that the state government said the policies are written in a way that doesn't allow the government to invest in these infrastructures - it can only invest in programmes, like meals on wheels.
"There's no strategy, no policy that allows the government to invest in these infrastructures, so there's a long way to go before Australia and New Zealand catch up to Europe."
As with the rest of the world, the fastest-growing demographic in Australia and New Zealand is retirees.
"On a government level, we are surprised how few of the council's budget is for outdoor public space specifically for seniors," said Makela.
There are four main age groups; children, teens, working adults and seniors. The two that get the most budget, on average, are children and working-age adults.
"We see this shift slowly, but there need to be major changes in the next 10-20 years," said Makela.
This slow shift is part of why the equipment used by NARI is multigenerational. Designed so the grandparents could exercise whilst the grandchildren play on the same equipment. However, because it looks like playground equipment, Makela believes there is some initial embarrassment around using the equipment.
"This is why we are sponsoring local governments to have 6-8 week physiotherapy sessions that take people through the exercises on this equipment, which will build a group of users who will become the next trainers and encourage those coming for the first time."
Getting over this embarrassment is extremely important, stresses Makela, as the mental wellbeing benefits are as great as the physical.
"There are a lot of seniors who are housebound, lost their partner, or have moved to a new area and know no one. These exercise parks can be the ice breaker that helps in exercising and meeting neighbours."
There has been a lot of success in Europe, Makela explained, where the exercise sessions led to coffee before or after, and it became more than just exercise.
Not only is the equipment good for people, but it's also good for the environment. All products are fully recyclable, and the suppliers are sustainable in terms of forestation. Each piece of equipment is made from timber which comes from certified forests. All by-products and cut-offs are used in a plant that heats the township where it is located. Even though the equipment comes from Finland, all components come from near the factory on one shipment to Australia.
"Finland is quite large, nearly 70 percent forest. There are too many trees not being consumed fast enough," said Makela.
The forestry industry ensures it provides for the future by planting one and a half trees for every tree felled.
When it comes to installation, Makela said the location is critical.
"We've learnt that in public settings, the location is crucial. From both the point of view of potential users and the physical landscape."
The park needs to be situated close to a pathway with passive traffic, so people naturally become aware of it. Otherwise, it becomes a social media awareness task. Secondly, it needs to be somewhere flat and accessible.
"Unfortunately, in Australia, we have had some parks on hills, and there has been a reduction in usage. Some people do come via shuttle, which is nice, but that shouldn't be the only way to access it."
Initially, the equipment was designed as large units that allow for multigenerational use and a multitude of exercises. However, in the last five to six years, Lark Industries has installed individual equipment in one space or parts as a circuit.
"For example, one part might be in the first spot, then you walk a bit down the track, and there are another few pieces." The individual pieces are for senior exercise only.
Lark Industries are currently working with NARI on QR technology and linking with the training.
"We're also trialling internet-connected play and exercise equipment," said Makela.
"We've got a Dance Arch which creates different musical challenges with motion sensor cameras."
NARI works with local Australian governments and senior organisations across all stages, including designing and installing senior exercise parks.
"We provide advice around what is involved, age-friendly principles of installation, and training for health professionals and senior ambassadors to upskill community members about safe usage," said Levinger.