Four Steps Parks and Rec Can Take to Wipe Obesity from the Headlines

By Zarnaaz Bashir|Posted on August 22, 2013

Have you noticed obesity in the news lately? Here are a few of the headlines from this summer:


 The American Medical Association (AMA) classifies obesity as a disease


 “Obesity is far more deadly than we originally thought” 


Obesity among low-income preschoolers has declined in 19 states from 2008 to 2011” 


“After three decades of increases, adult obesity rates remained level in every state except for one”


Numerous articles and studies published recently give us good reason to pat ourselves on the back. According to a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation titled F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2013, evidence shows that the rate of increase in obesity has been slowing. In 2005, every state but one experienced an increase in obesity rates; in 2011, rates increased in only 16 states. Also on a positive note, obesity rates in low-income preschoolers are showing small declines in many states, according to a recently released Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is all good news!


But still, other headlines stress that we have a lot more work to do and more investment must be focused on prevention. Some controversial research published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that obesity accounts of about 18 percent of all deaths in the United States, which is three times previous estimates. As the generation of children that have been obese since childhood grow older, the obesity problem may even get worse.


With obesity in headlines again, we are reminded of the critical role parks and recreation plays in health and wellness 


Keeping all of these important reports and studies in mind, one thing remains very clear: our work is not done, and we’ve still got more to do


It’s nice to see groups such as the AMA addressing the issue, not only making diagnosis and treatment of obesity now part of a physician’s job, but encouraging the medical community to discuss obesity health risks with patients. The AMA’s declaration of obesity as a disease puts the pressure on health insurance companies to reimburse physicians for addressing obesity's health risks with their patients.


What about park and recreation agencies? Agencies across the country have been busy building and improving trails and bike paths, creating safe park zone laws for safer access to park entrances, renovating parks and playgrounds, and implementing healthy eating programs during out-of-school times. And these are just some of the many ways park and recreation agencies have been actively addressing the issue. The progress has been incredible, and we should all take a moment to feel proud of the significant accomplishments park and recreation agencies have made over the last several years. 


But only just a moment. We must pay attention to the fact that as more and more reports are being released, park and recreation agencies and other community-based organizations are being recognized as critical in the fight against obesity (ok, take one more second to feel proud!).  This is definitely a move in the right direction, and something that is priority for NRPA and parks and recreation everywhere as outlined in the Health and Wellness Pillar of the NRPA’s Three Pillars.  


What can we all do now?  Here are some crucial steps that in our roles in the community, we can take and lead to ensure that policies at every level support healthy choices:


1.  Create partnerships with leaders and community members to create community changes that promote healthy eating and active living;

2.  Make it easier for families with children to buy healthy, affordable foods and beverages;

3.  Help provide access to safe, free drinking water in community parks and recreation areas; and

4.  Help keep safe and accessible play spaces open during out-of-school times.


The fact remains that obesity is complex and has an enormous impact on our health care system, but the progress we’re starting to see is very heartening. As long as we keep this issue front and center in the work that we do, perhaps obesity can move from the headlines to a thing of the past. 


Written by: Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH, NRPA Director, Health Initiatives 


What are some concerns you have about obesity in your community? How are you taking a leadership role in the community on this issue? Of the above steps, which do you think your agency can be instrumental? Add your thoughts in the comments below or share your feedback on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #HealthandWellness.