Health & Medicine

Playgrounds are a big hit with Spain's elder set

It’s spring and kids in some parts of the world at least, are heading outside and playing in parks and on jungle gyms.

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In Spain, they’re often with their grandparents. But these days the older folks aren’t just sitting around feeding squirrels.

They’re playing too. And exercising. On hundreds of specially designed outdoor circuits for the elderly.

On one recent morning, in the Spanish coastal town of Vilassar, a kiddy park with its slides and seesaws is empty. But right next to it, 20 retirees shout out during roll call. Then they take up positions by tiny balance beams, elevated walkways, pedals fixed to benches and twisting metal bars.

The day’s workout session begins.

63-year-old retiree Manuel Francisco Martin spins a suspended metal disk with two hand cranks, while walking in place.

“The point is to be able to keep going, he said. “To never stop. Because once you stop moving, things go badly.”

Several grey heads nod in agreement.

“If you exercise you feel better,” he says. “When you go up a couple of steps you don’t get out of breath. When you walk for 10 minutes you feel calm and relaxed.”

The body is like everything else, he said: any parts that aren’t used eventually break down.

This outdoor exercise park was designed somewhere with a decidedly short season for parks: Finland. The company behind the project was Lappset and they've sold tens of thousands of these parks worldwide.

But Spain has been an especially good market. It has 600 already and orders in for hundreds more.

Each time a new park opens here, Lappset physical therapist Paz Vidal shows up to explain how each station works. They’re not overly complicated. But Paz said the seniors generally need a walk-through. And encouragement.

“People’s first impression is always, ‘huh, what are we going to do here?’” she said.

But she said they come around quickly - and to their benefit.

“Most are used to strolling,” she said, “but not stretching, much less using all their different muscles.”

“It is very healthy and important,” said Juan Masi, 70, while pushing a rubber tube back and forth along a bar. Then he loses his breath and laughs. 

“This is what happens when the years pass,” he said. “You’ll see one day.”

These parks aren’t just about getting winded. They’re designed for the mind too.  A few of the stations are in fact games, where you match colors, or shapes, or numbers.

Barcelona’s Josep Sole has bought some 300 elderly parks for the greater Barcelona area. That’s about one for every town in the district.  Sole said the million-dollar-plus price-tag is worth it.

“We loved the idea of creating spaces in public to encourage the elderly,” he said. “We value these for the exercise, but the key is that it’s not in a gym, not in a retirement home, but outside.”

The point of these outdoor exercise spots isn’t just to give elderly folks something to do. Officials say it makes good fiscal sense as well.

Analysts estimate that 40 to 45 percent of the population in Spain will be retirees by 2050. Spending a few bucks on parks to keep that population alert and healthy, the thinking goes, could save a lot in expensive health care costs.