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Once tagged America's fattest city, Miami is shaping up

By Misty Showalter, CNN
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Miami's outdoor gyms
  • Miami officials have used quality-of-life funds to buy outdoor workout equipment
  • People of all ages use the machines that are located in three public parks
  • In 2009, Miami topped the annual survey of fattest cities in America by Men's Fitness

Miami (CNN) -- Waves gently lap at the shore. Palm trees rustle in the breeze. A boat drifts by. For those who like to work out, there's no better place. This is one of Miami's new outdoor gyms.

Miami -- known for its lively nightlife, tanned skin and tiny clothing -- was slapped with a big, pudgy curve ball in 2009, when Men's Fitness magazine named it the fattest city in America.

"I thought we'd be prettiest city in America," said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. "And interestingly enough, we didn't come in second or third, we came in the fattest city in America. And I just wanted to change that image."

Sarnoff is an active middle-aged man -- his crutches from a recent ski injury serving as evidence -- and he took the distinction personally.

"It's who I am. I want to make sure that I work out personally for as long as I can, I think there's a segment of Miami who wants to do the same thing and I want to provide the opportunity to do it no charge in a beautiful environment."

Sarnoff used quality-of-life funds, given to all Miami city commissioners, to buy outdoor workout equipment. Some commissioners use the money for things like traffic circles.

It's really wonderful to come and take a walk in a beautiful park and work out a little bit.
--Milley Cassanova

But in three public parks in Sarnoff's district, at a cost of about $55,000 per park -- there are platforms with machines that work the back, shoulders, arms, chest, legs and abs.

"Before I became commissioner, the only thing I remember getting from government are garbage cans," Sarnoff said.

"And that's a harsh, horrible thing to say and yet it's what I remember. I wanted to be able to give people back something that is very personal to them and to me exercise equipment and a brand new running surface is very personal to people. And if you use it an hour a couple days a week, it puts a smile on your face for that period of time."

If 9:00 to 10:00 on a Monday morning in Kennedy Park was any indication, the idea is putting a smile on dozens of park visitors a day. The equipment was used steadily, by people of all ages.

"It's really wonderful to come and take a walk in a beautiful park and work out a little bit," said Milley Cassanova, who together with her retired friend tried the gear for the first time.

Roofer Alvar Contreras comes to the park in between construction jobs.

"I can't join a gym because I don't know when I am free or when I am busy," said Contreras. So the free gym is a perfect fit.

In Miami, the outdoor gyms so far are confined to Sarnoff's District 2 borders, though he's working to change that. But Miami Beach -- home to the land of tiny bikinis and glistening skin that is South Beach -- has its own set of outdoor gyms.

Rhonda Gracie, landscape projects coordinator for Miami Beach Parks and Recreation, had the challenge of finding equipment that could survive the salty ocean air and sandy beach.

"On the beach, directly off of the water, we probably will get five to seven years we expect for the life cycle -- which is really a great value. We get about the same with our playgrounds," said Gracie.

"And as a result for the amount of money we're spending, the amount of use that we're getting, it's really pennies per day."

Gracie has spent about $80,000 on three gyms on Miami Beach. And while it's hard to track results from the money spent -- after all, how do you prove overall health is better because people are using the gyms? -- to the regulars, like 89-year-old Sal Cappi, it's money well spent.

Cappi is a member of the South Beach Community Fitness Organization, a group formed after the outdoor gyms were installed.

"I love it because all these young guys, you know we get together, I ask them what they eat, they ask me what I eat, we get all different ways of diets and stuff which is very important, and exercise is good for your body and mind. That's why I do it."

Standing in the sun, listening to the seagulls, and looking out at the blue water (not a bad place to cool off after a work out), you can see why these gyms are so popular.