Having fun and getting fit in the forest

The creation of the trails turned the idea of exercising on its head Keystone

The idea of an outdoor gym, known in many parts of the world as fitness trails or parcourses, was born in Switzerland.

This content was published on May 18, 2011 - 18:36
Michela Montalbetti,

The original trail was built in 1968 near Zurich. Today, Switzerland boasts about 500 across the country and there are an estimated 2,500 worldwide.

Nearly all of the Swiss trails, consisting of a series of obstacles and exercise stations set up along a jogging path, are found in forests on the edge of towns and villages.

The first parcourse came into existence when a men’s gymnastics team in the commune of Wollishofen decided a great way to train and get some fresh air at the same time was by heading to a nearby wood and running and jumping over natural obstacles such as tree stumps.

But being Switzerland, the community liked to keep its forest clean, and regularly cleared the trail of the natural debris. Finding their parcourse dismantled, the group turned to the authorities asking for the approval to create a permanent fitness trail which could be used by anyone wanting to exercise in the wood.

The idea was well received, and a sponsor was found: the insurance company VITA (now Zurich Financial Services Group) which gave the unique trails their name, Vita Parcours, which they are still known by in Switzerland.

“The insurance company VITA showed an interest from the very beginning to develop a series of trails of this kind and not only for the gym club of Wollishofen,” Josef Bächler, head of the Vita Parcours foundation, told

Snowball effect

The experiment – a worldwide first – became enormously successful. “The idea really snowballed, starting in Zurich and then spreading around the world,” Bächler said.

Originally designed as a way for experienced athletes to train, the fitness trails were adapted in 1972 so they could also be used by anyone wishing to improve their level of fitness.

Only one year later, the 100th Vita Parcours was inaugurated and the trails really mushroomed in the 1970s and 80s. By 1990, there were 500 across the country – which is around how many there are today.

The idea eventually caught on in different parts of the globe.

“There are many in neighbouring countries, mostly in Germany. But we also receive requests from distant countries like South Africa, Canada, the United States and Australia. Often it’s Swiss expats who decide they want to build their own fitness trail similar to the Vita Parcours they remember from home. The foundation offers its know-how and sells at cost the posters describing the series of exercises,” Bächler explains.

Local clubs

While the foundation is responsible for the initial trail set up, as well as the coordination and further development of the Swiss network, the parcourses are actually maintained by local sports clubs or tourist offices.

Bächler says annual maintenance costs run between SFr1,000 and SFr2,000 ($1,136-$2,272), depending on the place and size of the parcourse.

But the Swiss Vita Parcours trails did go through a phase when they were criticised, for example, for including exercises thought to be anything but good for your health.

“At the end of the 1980s there were exercises that were too challenging for many people,” Bächler said. “Today, those that require less effort are preferred.”

In their 43-year history, the Swiss parcourses have continually developed to meet the changing needs of the public and above all, the findings of the latest research into the best ways of exercising to stay fit.

“For this reason we have been working closely with the training centre of the Federal Sport Office. Our parcourses are perfectly aligned with the current requirements for sport. I know of professional football clubs that train on Vita Parcours,” the head of the foundation said.

“In general experts of all kinds have only words of praise for the Vita Parcours. According to a study conducted by the company Lamprecht & Stamm, around ten per cent of the population use them. This figure could be a bit high since I think it’s between five and seven per cent.”

Bächler doesn’t think it’s necessary to expand the offer. “The 500 we already have are sufficient. They are spread across the country and everyone has a trail close by.”

There are now many different kinds of ways of keeping fit outdoors, but Bächler doesn’t see this as competition for the Vita Parcours network: “It’s just important that people are active!”

Swiss Vita Parcours

There are about 500 such fitness trails in Switzerland and Liechtenstein: 70% of them are in German- and Romansch-speaking areas; 23% are in the French-speaking part and 7% in the Italian-speaking part.

A typical trail is 2.3-km long and leads uphill for at least part of the way. Most have about 15 stations where you can do a variety of exercises. Stations marked in blue promote endurance, while yellow stands for flexibility and red symbolises strength.

The “Zurich” insurance company sponsors the maintenance of the trails and their obstacles.

The concept has spread to other countries as well. There are 1,500 in Germany and 500 in France, with a few hundred more scattered around Europe.

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A walk in the woods

Nearly everyone in Switzerland can easily access a forest. It takes the average Swiss person 19 minutes to reach the woods.

Many Swiss head for the forest to relax. Some 13% go daily in summer; in winter, it’s 9%. However, only 2-3% of people in the Lugano area hit the woods every day.

Top woodland pastimes include: walking the dog, observing nature, horseback riding, running, cycling, relaxing, playing with the kids and having parties. 

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