The NFC is a modular, rapidly deployable, outdoor gym.

It uses passive equipment structures--resistance training--to enable workouts without lots of weights and complicated moving parts.

But the most innovative aspect may be its business model: The gym is free to bring into a community. Corporations subsidize the cost.

So the memberships are free, too, meaning it doesn’t cost anyone $50 a month to not use their gym membership.

And to go through your workout? A podcast, developed by personal trainers, will take you through the whole circuit.

A Design Firm Rethinks The Entire Gym Experience

We know obesity is an epidemic, but gym memberships are expensive. So maybe what we need are new gyms.

There are a lot of reasons not to go to the gym. The membership is pricey. It’s far away. You have no idea how to use half the equipment anyway. It’s yet another place you’re going that’s inside.

The National Fitness Campaign’s (NFC) court, designed by NewDealDesign, challenges each of these barriers to working out at a gym. It’s a low-cost, open-air space that is constructed in factories, then modularly assembled on-site in just half a day. The idea is that any community could set up, customize, or relocate a gym in a public space--without any money at all. Communities can actually request a gym to arrive for free, and locals needn’t buy memberships.

How? The NFC courts are corporately subsidized. The platform is pursuing a model in which businesses can use the space as an advertisement, subsidizing community fitness while scoring some solid PR in the process. It’s actually an old idea, one that started by Mitch Menaged back in 1979. It was quite successful. The decade-long, international campaign reached 4,000 cities in three countries. Now, Menaged, along with Sam Lucente, is launching the idea again, updated with 30 years of innovation. The first NFC has arrived in San Francisco already, and more than a dozen others are planned for the area in 2013.

The design concerns of such a project are numerous. Materials had to be durable enough to withstand outdoor weather. The components had to be easily transported, assembled, and even rearranged. And equipment had to offer a full body workout for all fitness levels.

Off-the-shelf solutions wouldn’t work, so NewDealDesign brought on seven personal trainers to help develop and test what’s all-new (or highly modified) equipment. What they quickly decided on was to ditch weights--they’re heavy, and they’d be difficult to tether to the platform--and rely on a body’s own mass for resistance training. But while exercises like pull-ups may offer a great workout, not everyone can do a pull-up. The solution? Make exercises tweakable by designing equipment to work with various postures and grips. Then, put many of the hardest exercises along the structure’s single wall.

“The wall was a major enabling factor, allowing us to hang devices, but also give a few steps for people who are weaker or not trained enough to come onboard and enjoy the space,” NewDeal Director Gadi Amit explains. “You can lessen the stress level by standing on slats, then slowly reduce the support of your legs.”

Menaged and Lucente developed prototypes in a basement near NewDealDesign’s HQ, also bringing in trainers to constantly test and assess the designs. Once the NFC was complete, the trainers turned the circuit workout into a seven-minute podcast, so any couch potato can show up to be guided through each exercise by a virtual personal trainer. The idea is kind of like a museum audio tour, that is, if museums could give you 20-inch biceps.

See more here.

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16 Comments

  • BongBong

    And what about the enormous liability issues surrounding these things? There are dangerous injuries that could result from using any workout equipment. Would the equipment maker be liable? The city? The landowner?

  • Claire

    Great idea. Have seen it in operation with free outdoor fitness stations in public parks in Sydney. They are less slick, but also probably more approachable (not scary looking, more simple structures). They design it as around 4 'stations', all with soft rubber matting, scattered throughout a large park, so the idea is you can run (or skip, or whatever) between stations to get some cardio too. Or, go to a different station for a while if you're embarrassed to share with whoever is on it at the time.

    I love that it's free, it's outside, and it can be casual, so if you're walking through the park you're inspired to stop for some fun activities, or to challenge yourself (and/or a friend) to a pull up.. It is really like a kids' playground in that way. Not a chore. Though you can also make it as hard as you want. I prefer myself not to go for a 'workout' but to fit physical activity into my day, with some extra strength work when I think of it, so this is perfect to inspire and give some variation, and maybe meet some people along the way.

    My tip for promotion would be don't show so many (or only) sleek, fit people using it. They are the kind of people (like have already posted here) who are gym junkies and will not see it as a replacement for a gym. Show people in everyday clothes, with a bit of weight or age, just enjoying moving and using their bodies a bit. Like another commenter said, maybe they won't get the biggest muscles or win a marathon, but they'll live longer, better, more healthy lives.

  • Liliana

    I think it is awesome! It may not work for all the people in this generation but think what model it sets out for our young ones! They grow going to playgrounds, they are part of sporting events throughout their school years, they have these "playgrounds" when they work on their careers without paying a hand and a foot and getting lost to the couch and comfort as easily at it happened in this generation, and then they start their youngsters around these playgrounds. Maybe these deployed gym parks can actually circumvent obesity and love of profit for the good of masses at large. We can only hope it can work in this way and have a little faith before we discredit these places.

  • Liz Supinski

    This is almost a great idea. But...all of the people in the promotional and instructional videos are very fit, and most are very young. Many of the people reluctant to join a gym are neither. For those without a history of gym workouts, I'm not even sure that it would be obvious that there are activities that they are capable of doing.

  • Matt

    I could see this as a great supplement to public parks - and, in fact, have seen similar setups at parks in the past (albeit not as well-developed as this one).  However, I really don't think this could serve as an effective replacement for a gym, as the article seems to suggest.  Calisthenics/bodyweight exercises are great, but are not replacement for exercises using free weights/machines.

  • Rockstar CPA

    I'm not sure it's so simple as saying that a new approach to the structure/location of gyms isn't going to be helpful... I know for our household, keeping up a gym membership was something we had to fight for to keep in the budget. I could imagine that many families struggled with this financial challenge as well. With a problem this large, there are likely many different solutions that will resonate with different people rather than one ultimate "grand design." So I say, if you can make exercising inexpensive, and bring it out of the stuffy, smelly gym and into the outdoors (with some fantastic views, apparently...) that's a job well done. I look forward to seeing many more assumptions about our health habits challenged in the year to come.

  • ChinaMikeP

    I live in Beijing, and these types of setups--we all call them exercise parks--have been around for years. The ones we have are much less strenuous than the ones in the slide show, but the idea is the same: put the things outside, and people will use them. The parks in the slideshow look rather slick and versatile. Here, most of the people who use them--and there are a lot!!--are retired-age (China has a earlier mandatory retirement age). It is more stretching and basic movement here. But in public spaces there is also morning and evening ballroom dancing, morning Tai Ji Quan, lots of walking. All this exercise is very social. And the results? I can't speak categorically, but I see many active people doing lots of physical activities, and doing them together. None of them will be winning any marathons, but I hope that in 20 or so years I am as active as they are--and having as much fun!

  • Marc Posch

    Nice project - but a key element is missing: The social experience. Effective fitness and health programs only work when people are part of a community. The peer pressure and the social experience are what makes or breaks everything. The nicest equipment won't get any couch potato off same couch, unless a buddy provides support. We've developed marketing strategies for gyms, and we've seen it over and over. Just providing equipment and selling memberships won't do it. Only when people get this warm fuzzy feeling of being part of a "fitness family" they will stick to a program. More work to do, guys.

  • Luke

    Hey Marc, thanks for checking out the project. NFC actively holds free fitness camps most every day that anyone can walk onto for instruction on the court and partner with gyms over the city to bring classes in. Fitness groups use the court to hold training events and show how to use it in specific ways to their discipline (yoga, boxing, pilates, etc). So their working at it ;)

  • Ian Pollard

    This is a triumph of design, but a failure of purpose. Callisthenics -- which looks to be about all this gym can offer -- is hard, boring, but has the one advantage of being something you can do at home without buying equipment. If you do need something, e.g. for pull ups, you can often improvise it.

    This NFC gym misses three of the main benefits of an actual gym: 1) access to machines that offer enhanced user safety (e.g a Smith Machine); 2) performance data logging (e.g. a Concept2 rowing machine); 3) access to a good selection of weights.

    Offering access for free is worthy of praise; but, the first time it rains, people who most need to use the place -- the lazy, the obese, those with weak motivation -- have a cast-iron excuse not to go!

  • Sophie Prescott

    Last time I checked, I didn't see a whole lot of obese people down at Muscle Beach in Venice, CA... sometimes people don't like to work out on display for the whole world...

  • Daniel Ostrower

    I have to agree. This is not a concept that will encourage those struggling to adopt a healthy habit to be successful. This is a concept that will make it easier and cheaper for those already doing the habit, to do so publicly.