They look like remnants of a fad. Four weathered wooden posts of varying height stick out of the ground between Woodward Drive and the railroad berm along the southwest boundary of Warner Park. Archeological vestiges of a fitness craze circa the 1970s.
A nearby sign identifies this as the 12th station of an old Vita Course, one of those outdoor exercise circuits that flourished for a short time under a variety of names like Parkourse and Park Course. "Climb on obstacle and fully stretch right leg," the sign reads, "then left leg." Further instructions are obscured, though a few faint runes and digits survive to suggest some target of recommended repetitions.
Conceived in Europe, these fitness trails proliferated across that continent before spreading around the world like some invasive species. They brought sequences of chin-up bars, pushup and sit-up platforms, low-to-the-ground balance beams and other apparatus to woodland trails, municipal parks and other outdoor settings. Some estimates put the number of U.S. fitness trails at a peak in the thousands.
"They were a pretty big thing," remembers Darren Marsh, director of Dane County Parks. "People were looking all over for them."
Then, during the 1980s, commercial gyms and fitness centers emerged as the next big thing, stalling the spread of fitness trails. People who had been looking all over for something like the Vita Course at Warner Park were soon comparing health-club membership rates and amenities.
Fitness trails like this Vita Course gradually fell into neglect. Others, including one at Brittingham Park, were removed altogether. Sun Prairie parks and recreation director Robert Holling notes that his city used to have such a circuit, but took it out years ago due to vandalism.
Despite their abandonment or removal, the underlying principles of fitness trails survive, integrating into parkour, a parallel discipline from which such exercise circuits derived. (Also known as freerunning, parkour has enjoyed a recent resurgence in urban settings, where almost any physical feature, from railings and benches to walls and ledges, can be employed as a tool for dynamic exercise.)
But the survival of at least one old-school fitness trail here - along with the recent installation of an updated variation on the idea - affords the opportunity to rediscover their value as a free, easy-to-use public resource for full-body outdoor workouts that can be adapted to individual users and goals.
Outdoor fitness furniture has advanced in recent years, leading to a modest revival of fitness trails. Penni Klein, director of the city of Middleton's public lands department, views the old wooden fitness-trail fixtures of the 1970s as "out of date" - maintenance-heavy, prone to rot and fall apart. In 2005, when Middleton was looking to install a new fitness trail at its Lakeview Park, it opted for a Life Trail Advanced Wellness exercise system produced by Pennsylvania-based Playworld Systems Inc.
The trail runs a little more than 600 yards around the park's pond. Made of durable metals and plastics, the 10-station circuit aims to improve functional fitness and promote good posture and balance, along with endurance, flexibility and strength. It includes structures and apparatus for standing pushups, lunges, hamstring and calf stretches, stationary cycling, an upper-body equivalent to stationary cycling, forearm rolls and other exercises, integrated with information panels on topics including yoga, healthy eating and safe exercise. Klein says the network is used heavily by the community's seniors, but adds that it is popular across age groups.
The city of Madison installed a handful of Life Trail stations at Hillpoint Park a couple years ago, says parks landscape architect Bill Bauer, noting that its proximity to a senior housing cluster near Junction and Watts roads has attracted comparable use from the same demographic.
The UW-Madison's 18-station, 2-1/2-mile Perrier Parcourse Fitness Circuit is a throwback to the fad's heyday. Starting from the west entrance to the UW's Natatorium with a station designed to stretch Achilles tendons, it proceeds along the Lake Mendota shoreline. Clustered to serve as a kind of warmup sequence, stations two through five include exercises like toe-touching, knee lifts and jumping jacks - old-school calisthenics.
Turning away from the lake toward Nielsen Tennis Stadium brings you to more demanding stops, including log-hop, step-up and chin-up stations. Turning right and continuing around the intramural fields along University Bay Drive brings you to a hop-kick station and a vault bar.
Another short jog brings you to a cluster of four more stations, including one for sit-ups and one for pushups. The long jaunt back along Lake Mendota's shoreline from Picnic Point's entrance toward the circuit's conclusion back at the Natatorium brings you to two final stations, one for a leg stretch and one involving a balance beam.
If you were in grade school in the 1950s or '60s, and your gym teacher was some crusty old taskmaster, this fitness circuit may induce flashbacks to childhood. Members of more recent generations may discern many of the fundamentals on which much of contemporary fitness theory is built.
Either way, it's a heck of a workout.