South Africa: Ethekwini Residents Get Fit in Outdoor Gyms

analysis

Durban residents are making full use of the free outdoor gyms the eThekwini Municipality has installed around the city, but poor equipment maintenance may scupper their fitness plans.

The sound of crashing waves on Durban's beachfront creates the perfect ambience for Paul Jacobs. Seemingly in his late 80s and hard of hearing, he hops off his automated wheelchair once a day and on to a piece of outdoor gym equipment on the newly renovated, multimillion-rand promenade at North Beach.

"What I like about this park is that it gives me some sort of exercise and I try to keep fit," said the North Beach resident, who rests on Saturdays. "The only problem we have is that the machines are badly maintained. You see, this is the only machine that is working. The other two are broken," he said, referring to a piece of equipment that allows him to swing his legs back and forward while in a standing position.

"A lot of the machines are not working. I enjoy coming here and it would be nice if the municipality could maintain the machines," added Jacobs.

The park houses one of more than 25 outdoor gyms that fall under the eThekwini Municipality, which aims to promote healthy living among residents living in the metro.

The initiative was the brainchild of the municipality's parks, recreation and culture unit, as the custodians of sports, recreation and leisure in the city. "The aim was to develop a project that would provide affordable physical training gym experiences to both the old and the young," said municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela.

The project, which the municipality first piloted in 2014, targets people from all walks of life and can be found in areas such as Bulwer Park, Glenwood, Umlazi, KwaMashu's D, G and K sections, KwaXimba, Folweni, Clermont and KwaDabeka.

Maintenance issues

Not too far from where Jacobs is exercising, Nathi Zwane, 46, has just dropped his children off at a training centre in Kings Park. Zwane, who lives in KwaMashu, comes to the outdoor gym three times a week. The chief development expert at the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Zwane spends about 30 minutes to an hour on the gym equipment.

"Before using the machines, I start by walking or running along the promenade and turn around at uShaka Marine World," he said. "Because the gym is situated next to the police station, I do not worry about safety. Everything is sharp so far."

While he enjoys the free facilities, like Jacobs, Zwane has complaints about the maintenance of the parks.

"What is happening in townships like KwaMashu is that the gyms become a playground for the children because, remember, parks were initially made to entertain children. Kids feel like this is their entertainment."

However, said Zwane, "I think they [the municipality] need to build more parks because here at the beach, the machines are rusting because of the salt. They definitely need to install these gyms in other open spaces, especially in the townships and rural areas.

"I feel like people in the rural areas are left out, perhaps because metros have bigger budgets and district municipalities could be dealing with different challenges like poverty alleviation and service delivery. Maybe for the smaller municipalities this is a luxury, but they can mobilise sponsorships from outside."

Good initiative

Peter Mlwelwa, 40, has been using the outdoor gym at Albert Park on Diakonia Avenue in central Durban for four years to improve his fitness levels.

"The only problem is that some of the machines are broken, damaged or parts are stolen. Sometimes I go to the outdoor gym near John Ross House on Margaret Mncadi Avenue, or I run from Victoria Embankment to uShaka Marine."

The only thing that irks Mlwelwa is that sometimes the parks are too full. Despite this, he says the outdoor gym project is a good initiative.

"To be honest, it is all about commitment and dedication. Some people pay lots of money at other gyms but they do not have the muscles that I have. Some people drink protein shakes and those things are not good for you."

Mlwelwa enjoys coming to the gym in the mornings as a way to start his day. "When you go to the gym in the mornings, you feel good. Your system is fresh and you have a lot of energy."

His biggest concern is safety. "Even if they pulled a knife at you, you can't scream. No one is going to help you, even if it happens in front of the security."

Fitness goals

At the Sutton Crescent outdoor gym in Morningside, it's waitress Buyisile Mkhwanazi's first day at the gym. The 28-year-old who lives on Umgeni Road woke up at 5.30am because her New Year's resolution for 2020 is to get fit.

"I came here because I want to start looking after myself and sleeping a lot can get tiring," she said. Although Mkhwanazi is petite, her plan is to come to the park every morning and in the evenings when she is free.

Breaking a sweat next to Mkhwanazi, accountant Steven Mbobo has been working out at Sutton Crescent for three years. While he can afford to belong to a gym, he finds the municipal facility more enjoyable.

"I am here at 5am every morning and I enjoy the open space and the vibe here, especially when it is full. Sometimes, when it is dark, it can be a little scary. The only problem is that the municipality does not maintain the spaces and that is a shame, because even the elderly come to use this park," said Mbobo.

In KwaMashu, 59-year-old Nomusa Sangweni has braved a cold and rainy morning to keep fit. Sangweni has been using the outdoor gym for five years and she has no plans of stopping.

"Today it is raining and there aren't a lot of people, but it does not matter because I enjoy being active and fit. What makes me happy is that I look and feel young. Working out also helps me mentally, gyming is a great stress reliever."

More than health

For Sangweni and many KwaMashu residents, the outdoor gym has become more than a healthy way of life. "It has helped the community a lot. The youth come here a lot, especially during the holidays. This helps to deter them from doing criminal activities."

Sangweni enjoys using the bicep equipment the most. "I cannot use the bicycle machine because it does not have paddles anymore. It would be nice if we could get an instructor who can show us how the machines work and which muscles to build."

The City said it is aware that residents have safety concerns and that it is addressing the issue. Mayisela said there are law enforcement officers who make their rounds periodically to check the parks and monitor the equipment.

"Park supervisors are also tasked with the maintenance of the various parks where the gyms are situated. They also monitor the equipment and report any repair work that is needed to the relevant unit," Mayisela added.

The City wants residents to make use of the outdoor gyms and encourage family members and neighbours to follow suit.

"Residents are also encouraged to form gym groups in order to make the experience more fun, interactive and to motivate each other. Residents who do not have outdoor gyms in their areas can approach their respective ward councillors for assistance," said Mayisela.

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