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Santa Monica weighs limits on fitness classes in Palisades Park

Residents say the park is turning into a giant outdoor gym. City officials are drawing up guidelines for trainers who use public places for their classes.

January 09, 2013|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Trainer Angela Parker leads her class in a workout at Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The city isn't alone in its struggle to deal with complaints about crowds of fitness fanatics.
Trainer Angela Parker leads her class in a workout at Palisades Park along… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

On a blustery winter morning this week in Santa Monica, the scene in Palisades Park was a modern-day California postcard: Mothers were power-walking strollers past sweatbands, yoga mats, hand weights and resistance cords. One boot camp group was bouncing through plyometrics and another was stretched out on their bellies like Superman. A band of stair walkers marched up and down the steps connecting the park to the beach below.

The park, as it is most days, was a giant outdoor gym, and one with stunning ocean views.

And that's a problem, some say.

Residents of the upscale condos and apartments that line Ocean Avenue have been complaining mightily about the human traffic jams. Now Santa Monica, a city that prides itself on encouraging wellness and a healthful lifestyle, is seriously, though gingerly, talking about cracking down on the fitness craze at Palisades Park. City officials are drawing up guidelines that would regulate trainers who use public parks and beaches for their classes and possibly add higher fees.

"We're very committed to having people be active and healthy and having really wonderful public spaces that encourage people to do that," said Julie Rusk, Santa Monica's assistant director of community and cultural services. "We are really trying to strike the right middle ground."

Santa Monica isn't alone in dealing with fitness fanatics. Personal trainers used to be the domain strictly of fitness clubs, but they are increasingly taking clients to parks to take advantage of California's sunny weather. Boot camps — in which an instructor leads a fitness class with a large group of students — have also grown in popularity at local parks.

Faced with fitness crowds, Redondo Beach allows only city-sponsored classes in public parks and beaches. Beverly Hills prohibits groups larger than two from its parks, and the city of Los Angeles charges boot camp operators $60 per hour.

Even some personal trainers admit that the scene at Palisades Park has gotten out of control. Although some trainers and boot camp operators have city permits and insurance, there are unlicensed instructors there as well.

The city estimated that in a single week in October, 73 group fitness classes and 74 private classes were held in Palisades Park. Trainers estimate that hundreds of people are served by a few dozen instructors.

Johnny Gray, a UCLA cross-country coach who sometimes runs by the park with his team, said there is simply too much fitness "clutter" these days.

"I have kids that want to run on the grass, but they can't because you've got big old blowup balls in the way, weights, ropes, people stretching; boxers are boxing in one area," he said. "It's like a gym."

Some trainers insist that they are making the park better.

Sonki Hong was one of the first to hold group fitness classes in Palisades Park more than a decade ago. Back then, he said, the park was filled with homeless people whom trainers have gradually displaced. He said the park is safer now and nearby residents have come to rely on his services.

"Santa Monica is one of the healthiest and fittest cities in the world, and we are at the forefront for setting the right example for other cities around the country to follow," Hong said. "The last thing we should do is regress by limiting outdoor fitness training in parks."

The city is expected to finalize its report in the coming weeks. But there is talk of a tax of up to 15% on the gross receipts of trainers as well as restricted hours and new rules for equipment use. Some residents are pushing for something more extreme: closing Palisades Park to training altogether.

It's easy to understand why personal trainers flock to the park, particularly in the morning as the sun rises and the ocean sparkles.

"I want everyone to face the ocean," trainer Angela Parker told her group of about a dozen students this week. "And I want you to kick to where the ocean meets the sky."

One of her students, Chris Wilson, a 40-year-old Brentwood writer, is worried about losing her favorite fitness spot.

"I'm a television writer, so I spend my days staring at a computer inside a room with no windows," Wilson said. "To start the day taking advantage of why I'm lucky enough to live here, coming out and seeing the ocean, and breathing fresh air … is pretty remarkable."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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