Why is this interesting? - The Vitaparcours Edition

On Switzerland, access to fitness, and old school as new school

Colin here. I, like many people in quarantine, have developed a newfound interest in running. The appeal is pretty simple: there’s no gear, and it is a nice mix of the mental and the physical. On a long run recently, I ran into a series of permanent exercise machines on a wooded trail. They were spaced out along the course of the woods, and if you did every machine, you’d get a full-body workout. Of course, there weren’t many takers in COVID times; folks aren’t trying to touch potentially dangerous surfaces in public space, but it piqued my interest in looking into what they are.

Turns out, the underlying idea is Swiss. According to a Times article that charts the resurgence in popularity of these courses, they’re “what the Swiss call vitaparcours, or parcourses … They are best described as fitness trails dotted with exercise stations, and they are often found in wooded areas.” 

These outdoor circuits were popular in the 1970s. It was before the communal fitness experience of gyms or even fads like Jazzercise. The concept was simple. Run a bit, do some pull-ups. Run a bit, do some dips. Run a bit … And when you hit every station on the route, you’ve gotten your cardio as well as a strength workout. 

Why is this interesting?

This trend from the 1970s sounds a lot like what bleeding-edge fitness concepts today seem to focus on HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. If you’ve done Crossfit or any number of group workouts in a major city, you know the drill: get the heart rate up, lift or do a strength workout, get the heart rate up again. Rinse. Repeat.

The Times continues

About 1.5 miles in length, vitaparcours here have 15 built-in stops for strength, flexibility and endurance training. A sign at each stop details the exercises and the number of repetitions to be completed. Any necessary equipment, such as bars for pull-ups or benches for planks, is provided and generally made of wood.

The concept emerged in 1968 after a sports club based in Zurich approached the life insurer Vita, then a subsidiary of the Zurich Insurance Group, with the idea of sponsoring permanent exercise stations in a forest. The sports club had been training in the woods and looking for a way to keep its makeshift exercise equipment, made from tree trunks and branches, in place.

The early vitaparcours were quickly adapted so exercises could be done by everyone, not just fit athletes, and the circuits proved hugely popular. Within a few years, they had spread throughout Switzerland, and a significant portion of the population made use of the new opportunity to get some exercise outside a club setting.

The outdoor courses were part of larger social movements to get entire populations active, and the fact it was initially underwritten by a Swiss insurance agency seems pretty progressive for its time. The trend soon jumped to the US in the early 80s, which, given the slightly garish color palette, is likely the timeframe of the course I stumbled upon. “According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, 450,000 people ran such trails in more than 300 American communities in 1977, when the idea was just taking hold in the United States. The concept still exists in some places in New York City, including at Canarsie Park in Brooklyn, Cunningham Park in Queens, and Riverside Park in Manhattan.”

As fitness trends moved on, these types of courses fell out of favor in Europe and the US. Some, like the one I found, feel like odd relics of another time. The Swiss ones, with their minimal wood and utilitarian approach, appear to hold up better. But it is interesting that as gyms have closed and people are itching to do something, anything, to keep fit, the courses (that are sturdy and purposefully built for both the elements and time) have found favor again. Just remember to wash your hands. (CJN)

Product launch of the day:

Friend of WITI Michael Sharon has been working on an interesting new company, Taika. He’s made a perfect canned cold brew plus adaptogens that take out some of the jitters of normal coffee, and give a clearer head. The flavors are incredible so far, and I even broke my “no caffeine” phase to indulge in their oat milk latte. In their words: “Taika (“magic” in Finnish) is a perfectly calibrated adaptogen-infused coffee in a can, designed to keep you calm, focused, and clear.” Plus, they have deep coffee street cred: the other founder is a two-time Finnish Barista Champion and top 10 World Barista Champion, Kal Freese. They are approaching their versions and iterations like technologists, which is also quite interesting, putting out versions of the coffee as they improve and experiment. Follow their insta, here. (CJN

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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