A Swiss Fitness Movement From the 1970s Comes Back Into Vogue

ZURICH — When the Covid-19 pandemic forced gyms in Switzerland to close, Beat Schlatter looked for a way to replace his five weekly training sessions.

Buying equipment for at-home workouts was not an option, said Schlatter, 58, who is an executive for a restaurant group and lives in Zurich. “I wouldn’t use it when my gym reopens,” he said.

Instead, he headed for what the Swiss call vitaparcours, or parcourses, which he used to complete in his youth. They are best described as fitness trails dotted with exercise stations, and they are often found in wooded areas.

Schlatter isn’t the only one heading for the vitaparcours. The outdoor circuits, which were credited with bringing execise to millions of Europeans in the 1970s, before commercial gyms or fitness as we know it existed, are busier than they have been in years and making a Covid-19-induced comeback.

Even before the pandemic, Sibylle Hurlimann worked out on vitaparcours on a weekly basis. She says she enjoys spending time in the forest and exercising in the fresh air. “It used to just be me and people out on walks,” she said. But since a nationwide lockdown went into effect on March 16, she noticed that her course, in the Fluntern section of Zurich, got a lot busier.

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.

Martin Lengwiler, a history professor at the University of Basel, sees two main reasons as to why vitaparcours motivated the masses to be active for their health and fitness, rather than to compete in a sport. After World War II, a shift from manual to service sector jobs took place in Switzerland and some other European countries. This, and the abolishment of the six-day workweek, resulted in people having more free time for alternative pursuits.

Lengwiler said that in the 1960s there was also a strong concern for the unhealthy aspects of modern lifestyles, such as the increased consumption of alcohol, tobacco and fatty foods. He suggested that these public health concerns played a role in motiving people to exercise, and many of them headed to their nearby vitaparcours.

The workout concept also took hold in neighboring countries, including Germany, where similar outdoor circuits were named Trimm-dich-Pfade, which translates to “get fit paths.” The parcourses were built in communities throughout Western Germany as part of a fitness drive orchestrated by what is now known as the German Olympic Sports Federation.

The federation’s spokesman, Michael Schirp, explained that in Germany, Trimm-dich-Pfade were also instrumental in getting the population active. “Before the Trimm-dich movement, those that weren’t members of a sports club didn’t do any sport,” he said. “No one apart from track and field athletes or footballers went for a jog. You just didn’t do that.”

To get the masses to exercise, the circuits purposefully had low barriers to entry. “You didn’t need any money to do it, no prior knowledge and no real sporting ability,” he said. “You only had to be up for it!”

Schirp, who used to complete Trimm-dich-Pfade with his school classmates, estimated that at the height of its popularity, in the 1970s and early 1980s, 5,000 to 10,000 courses were spread throughout Western Germany. There are no official statistics.

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.

By the mid-1980s, however, the popularity of the outdoor circuits dwindled with the rise of the fitness revolution. In Germany, many of the parcourses fell into disrepair, and today only a fraction still exist. In Switzerland, the number of vitaparcours remained constant over the years, but among the population, they lost their allure.

That is, until the pandemic took away gyms, fields and most sporting options. Barbara Baumann, who heads Zurich vitaparcours, the central organization managing the upkeep of the fitness trails in Switzerland, has noticed an increase in usage of the courses.

“There are many, many more people on them,” she said. Baumann explained that it was hard to determine exact user numbers, but she has fielded complaints from people who have had to wait at exercise posts, and she has been flooded with inquiries for new courses.

As to the danger of catching the coronavirus from the fitness trail’s equipment, Baumann said, “People use the vitaparcours at their own risk,” but she emphasized the importance of following the guidelines put out by the Federal Office of Public Health. “I recommend you wash your hands with soap when returning from the vitaparcours in the same way you would after going food shopping,” she said.

Schlatter said he worries about catching the coronavirus from the exercise stops. He tried using the stations with gloves, but they made his hands sweat, so, for now, he carries a bottle of hand sanitizer in his pocket to use along the way.

Until gyms reopen — in Switzerland they are scheduled to reopen next week — Schlatter is one of many people the vitaparcours are again helping to keep fit.

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