Sweatin’ at the park

A trial run through Lower Bidwell’s workout stations

The author tries his hand at Vita Course stations No. 9 and No. 14 in Lower Bidwell Park.

The author tries his hand at Vita Course stations No. 9 and No. 14 in Lower Bidwell Park.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

As a society, we’ve been conditioned to associate physical fitness with purchasing a gym membership, hiring a personal trainer, or dedicating a space in the house to expensive workout equipment. If you’ve got the money, these are perfectly reasonable approaches to getting in shape.

But they aren’t the only options, and certainly shouldn’t be considered necessary. Experience has taught me that achieving a satisfying level of physical fitness is less about the specific means you choose and more about ingraining a general sense of obligation to your body; where and how you fulfill that obligation are of secondary importance.

Exactly how long it takes to establish exercise habits is a matter of debate in the scientific community, but sports psychologist Gregory Chertok recently told SFGate.com it takes four to six weeks of “consistent” action for a behavior to become automatic. I’ve found that breaking through that painful initial period of establishing an exercise routine is critical. Once that’s accomplished, your body begins to expect the stress and might even begin feeling under-stimulated if you don’t provide it.

In Chico, some of the best opportunities for such stimulation are free, especially if you’re the adventurous type (running in Upper Bidwell Park beats slogging away on a treadmill any day), and for the pure range of exercises available, nothing beats running through the fitness stations in Lower Park.

Though parts of the course have fallen into disrepair or been vandalized—Lise Smith-Peters, the city’s park services coordinator, said her department has been trying for several years to allocate funding toward upgrading a handful of the stations—there is still plenty of opportunity to stop and work on strength, flexibility and range of motion.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

On a recent run through the course (which lines the dirt trail paralleling Vallombrosa Avenue) I tried my hand at each of the stations. With many of the instructional signs unreadable, no overhead map specifically for the course available, and two different courses (the Vita Course and the Parcourse Fit Circuit), attempting to follow the intended pattern of stations is confusing.

But because there are a couple dozen stations, it wouldn’t be practical to use each one during a regular workout, anyway. Instead, I chose to highlight a few that, when combined with a moderately paced run, make for a good (and free) full-body workout:

• Parcourse No. 13: This station doubles as a bench leg raise and bench dip. The leg raises, which amount to lifting your extended feet over a set post from a sitting position on the bench, are deceptively difficult. Leaning backward slightly engages core muscles.

The bench dips (popular among gym rats) work the upper back, shoulders and triceps, and are more difficult from the sitting position on the bench.

• Vita Course No. 10: Use the rings for pull-ups to engage more stabilizing muscles than with a regular bar. You can also keep your arms straight and bring your knees up as high as you can for a dandy abdominal exercise.

• Vita Course No. 14 (pictured): Work your way up the angled beam, jumping over it side to side. Obviously, it becomes more difficult as you reach the higher end. This aerobic exercise also helps with balance and agility.

• Vita Course No. 15: This is a set of three low bars I like to use for rows. With your belly to the sky and your back straight, pull yourself up until your chest meets the bar. This works your back, shoulders and biceps. You can also put your feet up on one the lower bars for some inclined push-ups, working your upper chest, shoulders and triceps.