J erusalem — As it usually does during the intermediate days of Sukkot, Gan
Sacher, Jerusalem’s largest park, attracted large numbers of Israelis late last month. But they weren’t all picnicking and relaxing. Some were pumping iron. Others were logging miles on rowing machines and stationary bikes. Still others were
breaking a sweat on steppers and gliders. Throughout the holiday period, the park was
filled with families — secular, traditional and haredi Jews (the latter dressed
in holiday clothes) all standing in line and waiting their turns to get on the equipment
and get their heart rates pounding.
Israelis have never been more exercise-conscious, but until recently their options were either to either work out at a gym or in their own homes.
About four years ago, a third option became available. A few large municipalities began to install outdoor fitness centers in public parks, community centers and beaches, and they proved so popular that other towns followed their lead.
Today there are several hundred fitness centers in dozens of municipalities in both the Arab and Jewish sectors.
The centers can offer more than a dozen super-sturdy, weather-resistant fitness machines accessible free to the public. They include weight and rowing machines, stationary bicycles, steppers and gliders that, when used in sequence, provide a hefty workout. The weight machines employ resistance rather than free weights.
Every center is built on the same low-impact surface used in children’s playgrounds.
While signs limit use to children over age 14, it’s quite common to see much younger children getting into the routine alongside their parents and even grandparents.
Because use of the machines is free of charge, even those with very limited means can now work out, any time, day or night.
Most of the machines are one-size-fits-all, meaning they cannot be adjusted to the weight, height or fitness level of the user. Even so, most users believe this is a small price to pay for the use of free gym equipment.
Eli Sadres, director of the Nat Holman School for coaches and Instructors at the Wingate sports academy, said public fitness centers “can be beneficial for the public’s health provided they are used correctly.” Unlike private health clubs the centers don’t have trained instructors, so the responsibility falls on the consumer. Potential users should consult with their doctors before embarking on an exercise regiment, Sadres said.
Israel was one of the first countries outside Asia to offer the fitness centers, which, according to many health experts, originated in China. Most of the machines in Israeli centers are made locally, and Israeli manufacturers have begun to export machines to the U.S. and elsewhere.
Haim Telavivi, who served as the head of the IDF combat fitness division before becoming CEO of Sport World, an Israeli manufacturer of indoor and outdoor fitness equipment, credited China for creating a public health revolution. “The Chinese have a tradition of doing tai chi and other disciplines in the park, so it was a natural step to create outdoor fitness centers. Slowly, slowly others became aware of the phenomenon.”
Sport World, one of the three big Israeli manufacturers of outdoor sports equipment, has constructed about 300 public centers in the past 3 ½ years, from the Arab town of Magdel Shams in the north to Dimona in the south — both of them working-class municipalities.
“Next month we’ll build one in Eilat,” Telavivi said.
The company recently built a public outdoor gym in Vancouver, and, according to Telavivi, “we’re speaking to people in New York about the possibility of doing the same in Central Park.”
Three years ago the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality built two free outdoor fitness centers in large public parks as part of a pilot project.
“The public response was so positive that we built many more,” said Moti Ambram, head of the city’s sport department. Today, the city has 38 such fitness centers, as well as an additional 40 exercise centers based in community centers. Membership to the latter costs about $30 per month and discounts are available based on need.
Ambram said the public fitness centers are part of “a grand plan” to encourage Tel Aviv residents and tourists to engage in sport. “In 2000 a survey showed that 34 percent of residents do sports on a regular basis,” Ambram said. “In a survey conducted two years ago that number had jumped to 50 percent.”
The city has also been building an extensive network of bike paths and will introduce a European-inspired rent-a-bike program in 2011.
Jerusalem City Councilman Elisha Peleg said his municipality has installed “seven or eight” public gyms, including one that opened a few weeks ago in the east Jerusalem town of Sheikh Jarrah.
“We insist on providing services to all residents of Jerusalem,” Peleg said.
Back at Gan Sacher a few weeks after Sukkot, a group of middle-aged women wearing pants and Arab headscarves were doing a strenuous workout on the stationary bicycle and weight machines.
“This is great,” said an Arab woman who said her name was Rana, peddling on a stationary bike. “It’s a beautiful day and I’m surrounded by nature. It makes exercising a lot easier.”