Mission Bay Park has close to 14 miles of paths.
A jogger in Mission Bay Park. Photo by Chris Stone

If this past year has demonstrated one thing, it has been our ability to adapt and innovate with through challenging times. Although never easy, we have seen many traditional “indoor” businesses like restaurants pivot to providing a similar, if not better, customer experience outside. The same has been happening in a lesser talked about area—physical activity and fitness.

One of the impacts of the pandemic is the closure of many traditional gyms and studios due to state and local regulations prohibiting or limiting indoor exercise. As a result, thousands of business owners have had to develop creative solutions to open safely and lead exercise sessions outdoors while adhering to public health guidelines.

So, what does that even look like? It looks like the empty park or green space you pass every morning walking your dog.

Livable communities with space for residents to engage in active, healthy lifestyles are considered a cornerstone of public health policy and a key to curbing the obesity and chronic disease epidemics. The conversation often focuses on the infrastructure and ensuring that there are adequate spaces for recreation and activity for residents of the community in the form of parks, schools and sports fields.

As residents of communities seek opportunities to engage in physical activity with others, increasing the number of opportunities available for physical activity and defining who is qualified to lead structured physical activity programs in the community has resulted in a greater focus on, and interest in, “shared use agreements” and its associated permitting models.

San Diego has a history of citizens seeking out these spaces and finding ways to use them that bring multiple benefits to the community. Look at pilots and projects by the Urban Collaborative and City Heights Community Development Corporation as recent examples of community-driven reimagining of neglected neighborhood pockets. When it comes to the opportunity for physical activity in our region, these standalone examples show us how, when we work together as community, business and government, we can transform more spaces into places for more people to access health and fitness programs and expertise. Weather certainly isn’t a barrier.

Conversations regarding shared use usually originate as a discussion around how to cultivate more physically active, dynamic community utilization of parks, school grounds and other public spaces. A proactive approach to managing for and not-for-profit entities that offer structured physical activity and fitness programs in community parks, on school grounds and other public spaces serves the community by creating safe and appealing opportunities for residents to engage in healthy, active lifestyle behaviors, while maintaining access for all users, is not only a great short-term solution during the pandemic but has long lasting benefits as well.

The American Council on Exercise is leading a grassroots campaign to maximize safety, utility, preservation and enjoyment of community resources for all users by disseminating best practices for the use of public space by exercise and health professionals and participants. Specifically, the campaign calls for local and state governments to expand access and reduce restrictions to using green spaces, parks, schools and other community spaces for safe, structured, physical activity programs and experiences led by well-qualified exercise professionals and health coaches. San Diego, as our headquarters and home base, is the perfect place to lead by example.

Our community parks and other public spaces should be available as a venue for structured, professional-led exercise activities organized by for-profit or not-for-profit entities subject to appropriate oversight including:

  • A permit requirement with a reasonable fee for use of the space
  • A limit on the number of permits issued for a given space to ensure access to all users
  • Reasonable revenue share or royalties consistent with other vendor programs if applicable
  • Professionals leading fitness instruction in parks, on school grounds and other public spaces to have a credible fitness certification

Early in the pandemic, San Diego responded to support our community, the fitness industry and practitioners by allowing physical-activity programs to be delivered safely outdoors in parks and other public spaces during the pandemic. Prioritizing and investing in physical activity, which has been shown to prevent and treat chronic diseases, is still critical to prioritize as consumers seek places, programs and expertise to improve their health and wellness through physical activity.

The Moving Together Outside Campaign recommends San Diegans take an active role in the civic process that determines how parks and other community resources are managed and utilized to promote active, healthy lifestyles. With the pandemic ever present, exercising safely outdoors is both a viable, and necessary option for reduced health inequity in communities that need it most, improved community health and increased economic opportunity for businesses and individuals.

Graham A. Melstrand is executive vice president for engagement at the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise.