How Parks and Recreation Can Help to Reshape Public Health
By Jennifer Elliott
Some 97 percent of Americans live an unhealthy lifestyle according to the 2016 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey. 97 percent. The study found that by far most Americans are not getting enough exercise, eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight or avoiding nicotine. This concerning statistic reinforces the role that local parks and recreation departments can play in elevating the importance of wellness as a lifestyle choice and providing citizens with affordable, convenient access to fitness services and public resources.
The role of local government is to improve the lives of its citizens and constituents. However, if the idea of tackling rising rates of obesity, substance abuse and inactivity feels too overwhelming for your limited staff and resources, understand that your parks and recreation department is still capable of making a big impact on your community's population-level physical activity rates by simply focusing on the following critical initiatives.
Your parks and recreation department is uniquely positioned to offer citizens one of the greatest resources available for getting active and losing weight: access to public parks. According to the Mayo Clinic, the simple act of walking outdoors can help individuals maintain optimal health; prevent or manage such health conditions as heart disease, high blood pressure and type II diabetes; and improve emotional wellbeing. According to Psychology Today, in a world where we are over-committed to deadlines, tethered to multiple devices, and experiencing epic levels of stress and anxiety, spending time in nature offers a crucial opportunity to enjoy a reprieve from responsibilities and stimuli that cause stress.
One essential key to motivating citizens to take advantage of local resources is cross-departmental collaboration and consistent messaging from multiple administrative agencies. According to Brian Stapleton, solution architect for CivicRec, when parks and recreation departments align objectives with their public health offices, they form an effective and focused ally in the quest for overall improved population health.
"When you make your public parks a core component of your public health strategy today, you give your citizens a convenient and affordable outlet for achieving their personal wellness goals tomorrow," said Stapleton. "Parks and rec departments should work with their public health office to put a plan together to promote available classes, resources and facilities to their community, and collaborate on initiatives such as community walking groups, geocaching events and other opportunities that encourage public participation in wellness programs."
While outdoor walking offers many health benefits, especially for individuals who are just beginning to alter their lifestyle to become more active, for many people, more moderate and intense levels of physical activity may be needed to lose weight, mitigate health risks and further stimulate a change in lifestyle behaviors. While the presence of well-maintained park trails should be a critical component of your public health strategy, make sure your parks offer additional services so that citizens have more options for additional activities.
Depending on the physical makeup of your parks, consider adding kayak and standup paddleboard rentals, a skateboard park, basketball and tennis courts, or even something as simple as pull up bars in rec centers and on playgrounds. Individuals who diversify their physical activities will be more likely to maintain healthy habits, especially if they can do so while socializing with friends and family.
The unhealthy lifestyle habits we embrace as adults often become part of our lives during our adolescent years. According to "The State of Obesity," the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reveals that the national obesity rate among youths ages 2 to 19 is 18.5 percent. Stapleton's advice to municipal parks and rec departments is to help parents encourage their children to get active and help teach youth the importance of physical activity as a lifelong lifestyle commitment.
"Ensure you are offering seasonal youth leagues, classes, camps and community sporting events for youth of all ages and physical ability levels," said Stapleton. "Make targeted enhancements to your activity and league offerings by surveying your community to find out what types of sports and activities are of interest. Our parks and rec partners across the country are seeing a growing trend in participation and interest in emerging sports and activities, like pickleball, an activity that was barely known only a few years ago. By staying tuned in to what interests the youth of your community, you'll see higher participation levels, which means greater overall activity and wellness trends."
A Data-Driven Approach
Stapleton suggests taking your quantitative data efforts a step further to continually inform your programming strategy and to ensure your commitment to population-level wellness is sustainable in the long term.
"Every community is unique," said Stapleton. "We work with mountainside communities with ski cultures, to coastal sailing towns, to senior communities where shuffleboard and yoga are extremely popular, and what we've learned is that every community has individualized interests that align with its typography and community offerings."
Stapleton advises parks and rec departments to understand how their activity and facility offerings can better align with their citizens' interests and needs by monitoring park activities and surveying citizens. The combination of quantitative and qualitative data can help you gauge where gaps in services and additional engagement opportunities may exist.
No matter how tightly budgets and staff resources continue to constrict, there will always be a need for parks and recreation departments. Moreover, even if, as a nation, we accomplish our goals of banishing childhood obesity and realize plummeting rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stress, we will always need public parks and community recreational activities to fuel our need for individual and socially based wellness opportunities. By embracing your department's role in improving public health, your community will benefit from happier, healthier, more engaged residents of every age.
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