Harlem Word: Nancy Bruning tells us about her ideas for improving parks

Editor June 13th, 2011

Nancy Bruning, MPH, is a public health researcher who runs fitness groups in Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan.  Based on her work in New York City parks, she has a lot of thoughts about how they can be used for fitness.  Read more about her ideas below!

Q: How do you think parks can be designed or changed to be more fitness-friendly for people to use?

A: First of all, parks can be designed so they are more appealing and so people feel safe in them.  It's important for parks to be clean and litter-free in order to be more welcoming.  Also, people need to see where they're going when walking into and through a park.  A certain amount of mystery is good, but people shouldn't be scared to walk through a park.  There's a theory of how to get people to keep moving by having little curves or a little bit of sculpture or tree.  People ask, "What's beyond that corner?" and keep moving to find out.  I'd like to see more parks with curves and sculptures in our parks to keep people interested in walking through them.

There are simple things that can be done to make parks more usable for fitness. For example, adding park benches, walls, or steps that people are encouraged to use for exercise and that are arranged so they can be sites for exercise classes.  It would be great to have a variety of steps at different heights so people can choose which ones to use.  If a person has bad knees, it might be easier for them to use lower steps for exercise.  Another design change would be putting in the kinds of walls that people can use for push ups or other exercises. The walls we use are usually the height of a kitchen table, but the lower the wall, the harder the push up will be. I'm working on a video series entitled "101 Things You Can Do with a Park Bench" and another on ways to use a wall for exercises, too.

Q: Is there any exercise equipment that can be added to parks for public use?

A: I'm not completely against putting in exercise stations in parks because they seem to work for some people.  These are more specifically designed as a place for people to exercise, which is different than using existing park features for physical activity. If these are put in, there has to be really good instruction to show people how to use them to avoid injury or improper use.  There also needs to be a program to launch the stations and introduce them to people.  Having refresher courses are also helpful to show new people how to use them.  There is actually an exercise station in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. I hardly see anybody use it.  I asked people who were in the park if they knew there was an exercise area and they thought it was for kids.  If exercise stations are put into parks, there needs to be clear signage of what it is and instructions on how to use it.  And they need to be more attractive than many that are out there now!

I would love to work with artists to create sculptures that are great to look at and could also be used for physical workouts.  I think artists can do a lot to encourage people to be physically active.  Every once in a while, there are sculptures throughout New York City, such as in front of Lincoln Center or at Central Park, where I've seen children climbing all over them.  They weren't made for that intention, but it just happens that way.  I think the arts are leaning more toward the interactive direction so the sculptures can be used for physical activity.

Other little things you can do are put in a little instructional plaque in a bench that tells people how to do pushups using the bench.  Or, there could be sculptural figures of somebody using a bench to do a pushup so people can copy them.  There are a lot of things that we could do to make parks more appropriate for physical activity.

If you are interested in getting in touch with Nancy Bruning, feel to contact her through her GetHealthyHarlem.org username: nbruning (click the "Contact" tab on her profile page)! You can also email her at nbfitinthecity@aol.com or call at 419-962-6292.

Read more from Nancy Bruning by clicking the links below:

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