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Could exercise parks for older Australians promote healthy ageing and social connections?

Cheerful senior woman on a swing at a playground

In a trend that has taken off around the world, could Australian neighbourhoods soon be seeing the addition of playgrounds designed for our senior citizens? As reported here by Seniors News, a trial by the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) is examining whether playgrounds for older Australians can provide the same mental and physical health benefits as it does for kids.

Here at Mable, we see more and more clients using the platform to engage independent support workers to help them to get out and stay active. Whether it’s engaging with a new hobby like dancing, or just thinking about small steps that can be taken daily, promoting wellness in older age is front of mind for many clients.

Exercise that’s as easy as child’s play

The NARI playground trials, which commenced in 2018 and will run for a period of two years, follows a past study that revealed that participants who used playgrounds improved muscle strength, balance, and physical function.Trial participants will be asked to participate in structured and independent activity at exercise parks, located in Hopper’s Crossing, St Helena and Thomastown.

The Central Park Seniors Exercise Park in Hoppers Crossing was built in partnership with the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) and Wyndham City Council and funded through Gandel Philanthropy.

Resembling a kids playground, but without slides and swings, the parks feature low-impact equipment that’s specially designed to mimic daily movements. The playground equipment across the three Melbourne locations is intended to improve fitness, coordination and balance – targeting areas that typically show decline with age. Although it’s specially designed for older locals, participants are encouraged to utilize the facilities alongside their grandkids.

Check out Wyndham City’s video showcasing the facilities on offer at The Central Park Seniors Exercise Park, 80 Lonsdale Circuit, Hoppers Crossing.

A place to connect

The parks are not just about physical benefits, with the trial also hoping to demonstrate that seniors who use the park benefit from reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. Like any shared community space, the playgrounds are hoped to become hubs for social connection, with the trial introducing morning tea after each exercise session to provide participants with an opportunity to interact with one another.

The creation of an outdoor park also draws on the well-documented benefits of a little time in the fresh air. A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research and covered here by Time Magazine, found that spending as little as 20 minutes in a park is enough to improve your wellbeing. It’s a finding that’s increasingly being embraced by the medical profession, with ‘nature prescriptions’ encouraging patients with a range of conditions to get outside and enjoy the free medicine that a little green space can provide.

Seniors playgrounds a global trend

As reported in Australian Ageing Agenda, Associate Professor Pazit Levinger, who is leading the Melbourne-based NARI study, says that the idea is not new, with similar centers common across Europe and China. This photo series from The Guardian shows the trend has reached even further, showcasing the range of seniors play spaces on offer in Thailand, Denmark, China, the UK and USA. Some countries like Spain have embraced the trend wholeheartedly, installing approximately 300 seniors parks across the greater Barcelona area alone.   

According to Huffpost, in many locations across the USA, the approach is not just to entice older people to the spaces, but to encourage multi-generational play. The parks have proven to be a great success, not only providing healthy common spaces for grandparents who are often primary caregivers while parents are at work, but encouraging local teens to get involved.

Melbourne is not the first location in Australia to consider the concept, with a similar facility also on the cards for Canberra, as reported by the ABC. With the aim of the parks a reduction in healthcare utilization, if proven successful, you could be seeing one soon in a park near you.

Mable’s community of independent workers include physiotherapists, OT’s and support staff who can help you achieve your health goals. Sign up and see who’s offering support in your neighbourhood.

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