County of San Diego Breaks Barriers to Recreation for Obese Youth

San Diego, CA | January 2014 | By National Recreation and Park Association

CA San Diego Recreation Obese Youth 410

In San Diego County, California’s unincorporated Lakeside community, engaging in physical activity is a challenge for many families due to a lack of resources and negative perceptions of nearby parks. In 2013, the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation (County) launched a coordinated effort in Lakeside to: 1) assist local healthcare providers in connecting overweight youth to opportunities for exercise; and 2) address cost, information, and perception barriers to park and recreation programs. Through the Rec Rx initiative, the County hoped to help more children attain their fitness goals and adopt lifelong healthy behaviors.

The County piloted Rec Rx in 2009 in the Spring Valley community, whereby free recreation programs, as well as fitness classes for a $5 co-pay fee, were made available to overweight and obese youth through clinical prescriptions. To assist pediatricians in making the prescriptions, the County created handouts with information about qualifying park programs along with maps detailing public transportation routes. The program helped educate many families about their neighborhood parks and created a sense of community connectedness in the area.

Lakeside was an ideal location to expand Rec Rx. The community is home to Lindo Lake County Park, a recreational hub. A wide variety of amenities support active recreation, including a community center, teen center, playgrounds, green space, sports fields, and a 17-station fitness trail. Although residents have long considered Lindo Lake Park unsafe, the County has worked to improve perceptions over the last decade by increasing the park’s offering of community events and programs. The department hoped Rec Rx would further demonstrate the park’s value.

The park is also in extremely close proximity to the Neighborhood Healthcare (NHC) Lakeside clinic, a principle healthcare provider for Rec Rx. “The premise is: if the patients can get to the clinic, they can definitely get to the park,” notes District Manager Christine Lafontant of the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation.

More than 30 recreation classes were made available to Lakeside patients through a $5 co-pay system. The County further reduced cost barriers by providing free programs, including ranger-led hikes, a “Fit Kids” program via the Healthy Adventures Foundation, and a brochure-led TRACK Trails program developed by Kids in Parks.

Through detailed training sessions, the County successfully engaged eight healthcare providers for the expansion, including four doctors with NHC Lakeside, two “home visit” nurses employed by County of San Diego Health and Human Services, and two nurses providing weekly health services at the Lakeside Community Center via the American Red Cross Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

According to Lafontant, the overwhelming excitement for Rec Rx expressed by health professionals was coupled with only one point of contention. While most felt that all children were at risk of being overweight and should receive prescriptions, the County wished to limit the program target to youth with high Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) due to budget constraints. Ultimately, it was decided that any patients could receive prescriptions for free programs, but only patients with high BMIs would be eligible for co-pay classes.

Of the 49 prescriptions handed out to date, the County notes that the overall filling of prescriptions has been low. However, the County has achieved enormous success with the WIC program, in particular, with 90 percent of the prescriptions being redeemed. The parks and recreation department attributes this in part to the fact that prescriptions could be filled in the very facility in which they were handed out—reducing transportation barriers and eliminating the potential for loss of momentum following prescriptions.

Interestingly, the County observed that the co-pay programs were much more successful in appealing to parents, due to their perceptions of subsidized, fee-based classes having a higher value for participants than free activities.

In pre-surveys given to Rec Rx participants, patients indicated having negative perceptions of parks, and that their use of parks was low, prior to joining the program. The County is following up with respondents a second time to determine how Rec Rx has impacted their use and perception of local parks in the longer term. The County has officially mandated the official expansion of the program in the East Region through the LiveWell, San Diego initiative and anticipates that survey data will be useful in engaging new funding sources and partners.