When my kids are at the playground, I’m usually the only parent making a spectacle of herself. I do push-ups and lunges. I hang from the monkey bars and try to pull myself up.
Yes, playground workouts can be embarrassing, especially when other moms and dads are relaxing or chatting on cellphones. But if you’re strapped for time, playgrounds are ideal workout spots, and not just because they’re free.
You’re stuck there anyway, they’ve got all the equipment you need, and research shows that even tiny bouts of exercise are associated with increased fitness.
And while a public workout takes some courage, “your actions might inspire a lifetime of health and fitness in your children or others,” said celebrity fitness trainer Marco Borges.
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Though your own body weight is really all you need for a good workout, almost all playgrounds offer at least three key pieces of equipment that can enhance the experience: monkey bars, benches or steps, and swings. Here’s how to make use of each one.
Try chin-ups: Hang with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart with your palms facing toward your body. Pull your body up until your head is above the bar, then slowly lower to the starting position, said exercise physiologist Tom Holland, author of Beat the Gym.
What it works: An upper-body resistance workout, chin-ups target several major muscle groups in the back, shoulders and arms. They also work core muscles.
Kick it up a notch: Try a pull-up by changing your hand position and grabbing the bar with your palms facing away from you. Add a weighted backpack or attach a small child to your back.
Make it easier: Rest your feet on the ground if the bar is low enough. Or simply hold your chin over the bar as long as you can, a strength test called the “flexed arm hang.” Simply hanging from a bar stretches and relaxes the back. Or hang from the bar and tuck your knees up to your chest.
Bench, steps or low platform
Try the bench step-up: Place your right foot on a bench about knee height. Step up and tap your left foot on the bench while fully extending your right leg. Slowly step back down with the left leg, then immediately repeat, said Holland.
What it works: The legs — hamstrings and glutes — and core muscles.
Kick it up a notch: Find a higher step. Or place your hands behind your head and jump with both feet onto the bench or platform. Hop back off the step, landing on both feet.
Make it easier: Find a lower step.
Try the ab walk-out: Hold the swing with your hands and keep your feet on one spot, Borges said. Using your abs, stretch your body into an elongated position. Return to the start position.
What it works: Abdominal muscles
Kick it up a notch: Balance on one leg.
Make it easier: Work this move on your knees. Or, if you fit, swing yourself. Swinging works the legs, quads and core and improves balance, range of motion and coordination.
Dial up the effort
Body-weight exercises — push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups — are some of the best moves to try at a playground because they require no equipment, and once you’ve mastered the basics, you can easily adjust the difficulty.
In fact, “the only limiting factor is your creativity,” said military fitness expert Mark Lauren, author of You Are Your Own Gym, which includes 125 body-weight exercises.
“Every weightlifting motion can be mimicked, made harder or easier, with your own body weight.” Lauren suggests using four techniques to change the difficulty:
-- Increase or decrease the amount of leverage.
-- Perform an exercise on an unstable platform.
-- Use pauses at the beginning, end and/or middle of a movement.
-- Turn an exercise into a single-limb movement (use one hand instead of two).
The push-up, for example, works the chest, shoulders, triceps, abs, obliques and lower back. To do one, lie on your stomach, feet together, with your hands directly below your shoulders. Push yourself off the ground. Keeping your body in a straight line, lower your chest until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, Lauren said. Push back up.To kick it up a notch, put your feet on a bench and your hands on the ground. Put your feet on an unstable surface.
Or put one hand on the ground and one hand on a ball.
To make it easier, start on your knees. Or change the incline by putting your feet on the ground and your hands on a bench. The higher the surface, the easier it gets. Holding the push-up position — an exercise known as plank — is a great abdominal workout. Five to try
Bring a jump rope. Skipping rope is a big-time calorie burner — comparable to running — and it’s an effective way to build bone density, said Tim Haft, the founder of Punk Rope, a jump rope-themed workout class. “It enhances coordination; improves timing, rhythm and balance; and you don’t need to move from one spot so you can monitor your kids.”
Find a line or object. Hop back and forth over it with two feet. To make it harder: Hop on one foot.
Play follow the leader. If you can fit, simply follow your child through the play structures. “This can open up a lot of possibilities for agility, core strength, climbing and running,” said John Colver, author of Fit by Nature, a 12-week outdoor fitness program.
Be sly. If you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself, try standing on one leg as long as possible. To make it harder, stand on one leg with your eyes closed. Or try the Invisible Chair (wall squat) by standing with your back against a tree, wall or piece of equipment. Move your feet away from the wall but keep your hips and back on the wall. Bending at the knees, lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Your knees should be directly above your feet and bent at 90 degrees, said Lauren, author of You Are Your Own Gym.
Live in your gym: If you start believing “there is no gym separate from the rest of your life,” the opportunities are endless, Colver said in Fit by Nature. “The picnic table in the park across the street could be the best piece of exercise equipment you’ll ever use.”