Can specially-designed playgrounds for older people really make a difference to how we exercise and keep fit? Writer Nick Smurthwaite went along to test one out.
London’s first ever 'senior playground' – a custom-made outdoor gym for the over-60s – has opened in Hyde Park - an oasis of calm amid the hubbub of the capital. A stone’s throw from the Serpentine, this facility is the brainchild of the Knightsbridge Association, with the financial backing of Westminster Council and the Royal Parks.
This follows in the footsteps of the UK's first senior playground, which opened in Blackley, Manchester in 2008, while similar playgrounds are already proving popular in Europe and China.
The small roped-off area on the south side of Hyde Park is surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers, making it surely the most idyllic setting of any fitness centre in London. There are just half a dozen pieces of equipment – actually five when I went along with my brother Paul and sister-in-law Caroline as the free runner was out of action – including a cross-trainer, a body-flexer, a sit-up bench and an exercise bike.
A welcome alternative to the traditional gym
The thinking behind the exercise area was to encourage older people to exercise in a pleasant, peaceful and lycra-free environment, many of whom find indoor gyms expensive and intimidating.
'People need to stay active and maintain their independence,' says Madeline Elsdon from the Knightsbridge Association. 'As well as the physical and mental benefits, we hope the playground will encourage users to socialise and have fun together.'
There was certainly a friendly atmosphere, and the three of us soon got chatting with sisters Naseem and Najma Malik-Noor, local residents for many years, who have been regulars since the playground opened in May 2010.
Najma, at 62 the younger of the two, said she was about to cancel her fitness club membership because the new playground offers her a perfectly adequate 30-minute workout for free.
The sisters only complaint was that it was not possible to restrict admission to those for whom it was intended – older people. They felt the Royal Parks, who are charged with managing the project, should make it clearer that this is a specifically allocated space for seniors.
Gently does it
In an article for the Daily Mail about the senior playground, Michael Winner said in jest that the benches were 'for adventurous oldies to rest on while they recoup, nurse their twisted ligaments and wait for the ambulance to arrive'.
He may be joking, but it would probably be quite helpful to have a fitness instructor on call in the nearby pavilion to help those with minor physical disabilities, or those who are wary of the idea of fitness machinery.
My golf-playing brother did come away from our session complaining of hip pain after doing twisting exercises on the body-flexer. But after we'd had a beer and a bite to eat in the nearby Lido Café he made a miraculous recovery...
So what was the verdict? Would we make use of a similar fitness facility if it was on our doorstep?
'Definitely,' said Caroline. 'I wish there was one in our local park in Surrey. To describe this as a playground for the elderly implies a bunch of oldies hanging around on the swings like so many bored teenagers. In fact, used correctly, the equipment gives a very good total body workout. I’m sure regular use would be of great benefit to the more mature adult.'
I would also jump at the chance to use it if my local London council decided to install one. I’ve always loathed commercially-run gyms, but at the same time I’m anxious to stay reasonably fit.
Senior playgrounds seem like the perfect solution, although we might have to wait until the economy has recovered before more local authorities can afford such non-essentials.
What do you think? Would you like your local council to build a 'senior playground'?