Why Vitaparcours Are the Perfect Pandemic Exercise Option

Even if you don't have a vitaparcours near you, you can create your own personal version with what's available. (Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)

If you run outside and find yourself adding a short stairs routine or pushups against a picnic table during your run — or stretching out using the branch of a favorite tree — you're already engaging in a version of vitaparcour.

Vitaparcours, or parcours as they're also known, are becoming more popular as people move outside to exercise during the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless of when gyms open near you, parcours are a great way to get free, whole-body exercise. And outdoor exercise is a proven mood-lifter.

The idea of mixing up running or walking on some kind of trail with stops at stations for strength-training or stretching originated in Switzerland in 1968. A sports club had already set up a course using trees and branches for specific exercises. The club partnered with a health insurance company to make more permanent stations that almost anyone of any fitness level could use.

It was immediately popular, and during the 1970s, the idea spread throughout Switzerland and Europe, and then to the United States. Growing up in the 1980s and '90s, I remember seeing these in parks in the Bronx in New York City and in upstate New York as well. Often they are found along woodsy paths, but I've seen them scattered around fairly open parks as well.

(You can get an idea of what the courses look like in the video below, even if you don't understand Swiss-German. Just watch.)

DIY vitaparcours

While many of these courses are in disrepair in the U.S., you can take advantage of this kind of exercise even if you don't have an official version nearby. You can also set up your own course along a trail by using whatever you find along the way, like those who first developed this way of exercising.

If you already have a running or walking route, you may have a few spots already in mind, places where you could stop and do some focused exercises. Next time you run, try to find a set number of stops, spaced at a distance from each other, where you can do an arm or leg exercise you already know. Start with five reps so you can get used to the routine, then you can add more on later, plus give your body time to acclimate to the new exercises.

Some ideas: A large rock is great for doing reverse pushups (or dips), like these. A solid wall or branch can be lightly held onto as you do leg lunges and having a specific place to do them can remind you to do the reps you've planned. Lean against a tree for stretches at any point in your route (a mid-workout shoulder stretch is a true joy, especially after you've done some of those reverse pushups). I like to look for a row of rocks or bushes that I can zig in-and-out of a few times.

Forget sit-ups. To get core strength, you need to build and tone many muscles, which means you need to try many exercises. (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock).

Of course, a fallen branch or tree trunk can be jumped over, and stairs can be run up and down (try skipping steps and going down them in reverse to force yourself to focus). A solid stump is great for jumping onto and off a dozen times, then repeating. Pick a spot with a pretty view or just an open area to do 50 jumping jacks or to practice your plank (look for a grassy spot). Hold onto a fence post or a young tree to do some barre-style leg lifts or squats.

It can be fun and creative to see what local materials you can use to break up your running or walking route. If you have kids, they might find it fun to reimagine their local landscape as a park-in-hiding if you present it to them that way. Ask them to find games or challenges for themselves as you walk and they'll likely come up with something you never thought of.

Of course, take care

If you do happen to have one of these courses at a park or forest near you, be aware that you could be touching surfaces that other people have recently touched, so use protection. One option is gloves with grips on them, either finding a pair at a sports store, or simply using something like gardening gloves that have grip on the palms.

Or you could go barehanded and use hand sanitizer between stops or at the end of your workout (being sure not to touch your face, of course). "I recommend you wash your hands with soap when returning from the vitaparcours in the same way you would after going food shopping," Barbara Baumann, the head of Zurich vitaparcours, told The New York Times.

Exercise is important for mental and physical health, so getting outside to do a vitaparcours or DIY course is a way to keep your fitness (and mood) up during these uncertain times.