Zurich vitaparcours, not just a sports concept – an institution
For more than 50 years now, thousands of people in Switzerland have been pursuing a type of outdoor sport that involves being creative and getting close to nature. Sportsmen and women of all abilities use these outdoor trails on a daily basis – either running or making their way through the forest at a more gentle pace.
The first vitaparcours (fitness trail) was created in 1968 in Zurich-Fluntern. A sports club which wanted to keep its temporary training facility on a permanent basis approached the former life insurance company VITA (an affiliate of the Zurich insurance company). VITA liked the idea. And after some evaluation and development it provided the financial backing for a nationwide roll-out of similar facilities. The VITA Parcours Foundation was established in 1993. It supports free sports for communities and physical activity for families, and promotes health awareness among the population in Switzerland.
Martin Lengwiler, Professor of History at the University of Basel, explains the reasons behind the vitaparcours' success.
After the Second World War, many people in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe switched from manual work to employment in the service sector. Combined with the introduction of the five-day working week, this freed up time for other activities. Concerns soon emerged about the unhealthy aspects of modern lifestyles, such as the increased consumption of alcohol, tobacco and fatty foods. Martin Lengwiler is convinced that these public health concerns played a role in motivating people to exercise, leading many to head for nearby vitaparcours.
In the 1970s, the vitaparcours began to take off abroad, exported by tourists who had loved the concept while visiting Switzerland or by Swiss expatriates.
There are now nearly 2,500 vitaparcours facilities in various parts of the world, adapted to the local population and terrain. They can be found in Germany, where they are called 'Trimm-dich-Pfade', in Austria, France and Belgium, but also further afield in the United States, Argentina and Indonesia.
In Switzerland today there are 497 Zurich vitaparcours and more are under construction. Communes and sports associations wishing to develop such a facility in their region should contact the Zurich vitaparcours management, which will provide them with signposting material and information panels free of charge. The design and maintenance of the facility is the responsibility of the applicant. "We are always pleased to receive requests for new vitaparcours – on average we receive about 20 each year," says Barbara Baumann, head of Zurich vitaparcours at the RADIX Swiss health foundation, operating on behalf of the VITA Parcours Foundation.
The principle of these open-air marked routes is simple: to promote sport in the community by offering every citizen the opportunity to train at their own pace, on days and at times that suit them. A typical vitaparcours is composed of a circuit of 2 to 2.5 kilometres, with about 15 spaces along the way equipped with mainly natural objects such as tree trunks or logs, providing opportunities to move in creative ways, mainly using the weight of one's own body.
Comprehensive information panels indicate the number of kilometres covered, the incline and possible exercises. In total more than 40 different activities are proposed at the 15 stopping points along the course. In addition, a chart at the end summarises calorie consumption and stamina.
Julia, who has been an enthusiastic user of these vitaparcours circuits for many years, says they have enabled her to take care of her health: "It's motivating to run from one point to another, combining exercises for mobility, agility and strength, and interspersing them with a bit of cardio training," she says. Pascal goes on Sunday mornings with his family: "It's our Sunday ritual after breakfast. It creates family cohesion, we keep in touch with nature and the kids let off steam through play," he says. He goes on: "There's no competition between us, we all go at our own pace and we always finish together and in a good mood! You sometimes encounter competitive types monitoring the benefits of their effort with their heart rate monitors, but that's not our aim."
Over the years, the concept of the vitaparcours has been continuously adapted and updated to meet the latest scientific standards in the field of sport, thanks in particular to collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen. Although Switzerland has not escaped the boom in local gyms, with machines and classes available at all hours of the day and sometimes night, the Zurich vitaparcours has not lost any of its popularity. They are even more in demand than ever, at a time when people are increasingly interested in health, sustainable development and a return to nature.