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Outdoor gym proposed for Grant Park near Balbo and Columbus

The FitLot organization builds outdoor fitness parks in cities across the United States.

Exercise, wellness, health education, and fitness opportunities on a large scale may be coming to Grant Park through a new outdoor gym. With the working title The Health Space @ Grant Park, the new amenity would be a 36,000 square foot outdoor gym proposed by the Grant Park Conservancy (GPC), whose members feel the gym would serve as a very dominant reminder for Chicagoans and visitors to pursue a healthier lifestyle.

While there already are many exercise venues within the park, GPC members see The Health Space @ Grant Park becoming the most prominent. The gym would be open to all for free, with no fees for any of the services or use of the equipment, according to Bob O’Neill, president of the GPC. There also will be equipment for physically impaired individuals.

At a recent standing-room only meeting of the Grant Park Conservancy/Grant Park Advisory Council, a majority expressed support for the initiative.

Under the guidance of O’Neill, a committee has been formed to develop plans. Among this committee’s members are individuals from Europe who are experts in reducing preventable health issues.

That is because Ross Arena, PhD, Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) also is involved with the effort, and he is chair of the European Society of Preventive Medicine.

A South Loop resident, Omari Jinaki, who recently relocated from New York City is also involved in the planning as he is familiar with smaller versions of outdoor gyms in New York City parks.

“While we realize that the outdoor gym will not be used by everyone, we believe it will serve as an inspiration for health in this era of computers, television, and sedentary occupations,” O’Neill said. “A great deal of attention is also being given to make it aesthetically pleasing and attractive to participants and non-participants alike.”

O’Neill said, “All of the equipment for The Health Space @ Grant Park will fit into a more natural, sustainable setting so as to look very organic. This has not been done anywhere in the world at this level.”

UIC involved Trainers will be recruited to consult with gym participants, and graduate students of UIC pursuing advanced degrees in nutrition, kinesiology, and other health-related fields would also be involved, “raising the benefits of this outdoor gym initiative to an unprecedented level,” O’Neill said. “It will provide a platform for local students and faculty invested in healthy lifestyles to interact with the community and significantly impact the health of Chicagoland citizens.”

Arena explained that “the term ‘gym’ is a misnomer because it will be much more comprehensive, being designed to help direct people toward a healthy lifestyle. Noncommunicable diseases have reached epidemic proportions on a global scale; cardiovascular disease is at the forefront of this global health crisis.”

A facility like the one proposed can help, and Arena noted that he believes healthcare systems of the future will need to function outside of traditional settings such as hospitals and outpatient clinics “and fully integrate into the community setting.”

With UIC graduate students and faculty members involved in the new facility, he expressed the hope that UIC in the future “might offer courses in this new healthcare concept.”

The FitLot organization, headquartered in New Orleans, LA, and committed to building outdoor fitness parks across America, has been selected to develop this initiative. “Our partnership with the Grant Park Conservancy is fitting for FitLot because, just like FitLot, The Health Space @ Grant Park is conceived on the notion of integrating healthy lifestyle spaces into free outdoor public areas,” said Adam Mejerson, executive director.

“FitLot is a nonprofit organization… dedicated to help communities find the resources they need to plan, build, and program outdoor fitness parks,” said Mejerson. “Along with committee members, I’ve taken a leading role in supporting The Health Space @ Grant Park project, which will be the first of its kind as a highly-customized, nature-inspired fitness, wellness, and movement space,” Mejerson added.

FitLot has partnered with the playground equipment manufacturer PlayPower which, Mejerson said, manufactures “fully-integrated outdoor playground equipment that is both inspiring and innovative.

Includes green attributes This proposed Grant Park outdoor gym would occupy a former skate park site south of Balbo Drive, just west of Columbus Drive, and north of some existing tennis courts. It would turn a paved, empty area into a green environment surrounded by plants, trees, and an organic garden, said O’Neill.

For the winter season, the gym would be covered by a canopy with snow cables or a hard-top canopy for protection, added Mejerson.

Among the fitness and wellness activities proposed for the gym would be a combination of agility, calisthenics, crossfit, and climbing elements, and there would be space for yoga, gardens, and exhibits with health education content, explained O’Neill. Design plans will be ready for presentation to the Chicago Park District sometime later this spring, O’Neill added. “No such proposal has been presented to the Chicago Park District” yet, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, director of Chicago Park District communications.

The cost of The Health Space @ Grant Park is necessarily contingent upon its final conceptualization, which still is being worked out, according to O’Neill. Corporate sponsors are being sought by the Grant Park Conservancy. Negotiations with Reebok are underway, and discussions with other potential sponsors are also taking place, O’Neill reported.

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