COVID-19 in Parks and Recreation: Supporting Community Health and Wellbeing During an Outbreak

By NRPA's Health and Wellness Team | Posted on March 12, 2020

Community Health During an Outbreak 410

Park and recreation professionals are dedicated to serving their communities. They faithfully work to create healthier, happier and more connected communities while confronting and addressing many of our most pressing health, social and environmental challenges. The vital role that professionals play is even more evident during challenging and anxiety-inducing times, including the situation the entire world finds itself in now. The World Health Organization officially declared the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11. Schools are closing, the economy is suffering, and people are becoming consumed with fear and anxiety.

While there are reasons to be nervous, especially for high-risk populations and areas, the immediate risk for most people around the nation is still thought to be low at the time of this post. While we are encouraging everyone to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines, listen and adhere to the recommendations of local public health officials, and continue to monitor the situation while preparing for the chance of wider community spread, it is also important that park and recreation professionals leverage the role that they play in communities to provide resources and tools that help prevent all forms of illness and continue to keep community members safe and healthy at this time.

NRPA’s health and wellness team has compiled a list of health tips that park and recreation professionals can share with their communities to keep people moving, eating healthy, focusing on mental health and wellbeing, ensuring people are getting enough sleep, and boosting immunity.

Encourage Physical Activity

NRPA’s program specialist, Lauren Kiefert, MPH, believes park and recreation professionals should encourage their community members to stay active through the COVID-19 outbreak. Physical activity is a key to long-term health for everyone. Regular physical activity prevents chronic disease, controls weight, strengthens muscles, improves mental health, reduces stress, improves sleep, and more. While COVID-19 may impact certain groups or structured physical activity programs from operating as normal, park and recreation professionals can encourage community members to continue to meet daily recommended levels of physical activity at home and in their local parks.

People who may be more comfortable exercising at home can consider accessing home workouts online. Park and recreation professionals can even provide recommendations for specific exercises or fitness routines that people can do at home using minimal equipment. Yoga, bodyweight exercises, stretching, or light calisthenics require no equipment and help to maintain your health. Agencies could also consider sharing videos through their social media accounts that demonstrate the exercises or hosting classes or one-on-one personal training sessions via livestreaming services. This may be incredibly valuable for older adults and people with chronic diseases who are more impacted and should still maintain their regular exercise routine. For folks who are comfortable going outdoors and have not been told to stay home, professionals can encourage people to stay active by walking, running, hiking or biking on local trails.

Provide Nutrition Education

NRPA’s program manager, Maureen Acquino recommends a focus on nutrition. Good nutrition is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and it provides long-term health benefits. A healthy diet can help you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of certain chronic diseases including heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes, and promote overall health and wellbeing. Park and recreation professionals are already providers of nutrition education, so why not take it a step further during the current outbreak and continue to deliver evidence-based nutrition information in creative ways to your community?

Professionals can share healthy recipes with community members via newsletters or social media, start healthy eating competitions to encourage folks to try new fruits and vegetables at home, create and share healthy recipes using common foods found in the home, or even conduct cooking classes via livestream services. With spring quickly approaching, agencies can also provide tips and tricks on starting home gardens. NRPA’s Foods of the Month and Community and Home Gardening resources are great, ready-to-go tools that can be shared across your networks!

We also know that park and recreation agencies are one of the largest providers of congregate nutrition programs for youth and seniors. Millions of food insecure homes rely on these programs each day. We encourage agencies to coordinate locally and with their state agencies to apply for waivers allowing for more flexibility at this time and advocate for funding that can help vulnerable families access the food and supplies they need to stay healthy.

Encourage Social Interaction in Creative Ways

Recently, CDC updated its COVID-19 guidelines, encouraging older adults and people with chronic health conditions to stay home as much as possible, avoid crowds and limit interactions at close distances. At the same time, more and more companies and employers are proactively shifting to remote working policies during the outbreak. While the protective measures are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring that our healthcare systems and infrastructure are not overwhelmed, they also present other health-related challenges.

In recent years, social isolation has risen as a major concern. Social isolation has been found to cause other health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and a weakened immune system. Social isolation seriously impacts older adults and other populations as well, including working adults. For example, while remote working has its benefits, working from home full time can also be very isolating. A recent article outlines some of the common struggles that remote workers face related to social isolation and losing the ability to “express our most human qualities, like empathy and collaboration.”

Social interaction is key to health. Park and recreation professionals should think creatively about how to encourage community members to continue to engage socially, whether in person (following CDC recommendations) or by leveraging technology and other communications methods. For example, can you host a lunch & learn event via social media? Can you start a book club and host virtual discussions? Can you match people up with buddies or encourage smaller group gatherings? Could you create a phone tree for people to check in with one another?

Focus on the Importance of Sleep

Sleep is critical to your body’s immune system. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep keeps your immune system healthy, ready to fight off viruses, and protects you from other health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Park and recreation professionals can encourage community members to use this time to focus on developing healthy habits, including a healthy sleep routine. Agencies can share information on creating a comfortable and quiet space for sleep, powering down electronics before bed, starting a wind-down routine, maintaining consistency in schedules, and avoiding caffeine, among other strategies to support a better night’s rest.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has a number of great resources focused on sleep for all ages.  

Encourage Time for Mindfulness and Self-Care

The COVID-19 outbreak is stressful. Whether your community has experienced cases or you’re in preparation mode, the impact can be felt just about everywhere. A great way to manage the stress and anxiety of this outbreak is to take time to implement mindfulness and self-care practices, like meditation, into your daily routine. Mindfulness and meditation have grown in popularity around the world due to their positive effects on relieving stress, tiredness, anxiety or feeling overwhelmed. Self-care looks different for everyone – perhaps it’s making time for a workout, spending time outdoors, connecting with family, reading a book, or exploring thoughts through a practice like meditation. Whatever it is, it should be encouraged. Park and recreation professionals can encourage community members to use this time to start a new practice that brings focus internally by suggesting ideas for self-care, hosting a virtual meditation, or providing links to a guided meditation for community members. Agencies could encourage activities like journaling, going on nature walks, or providing ideas for art projects.

Provide Additional Resources for High-Risk Populations

NRPA’s senior program manager, Lesha Spencer-Brown, MPH, hopes that park and recreation professionals will provide tailored guidance to vulnerable and high-risk groups during the outbreak, while reminding people to practice good hygiene and follow CDC guidelines.

Park and recreation professionals should take steps to inform older adults and people with serious chronic health conditions who are at a higher risk of getting very sick from this illness about additional precautions, including:

  • Stocking up on medication and essential medical supplies, household items and groceries so you’ll be prepared to stay home for a period of time
    • Caregivers should know what medications loved ones are taking and help them access additional supplies
  • Prepare the home if someone in the home should become ill
    • Be prepared to use separate rooms and bathrooms if possible
  • Practice routine cleaning and disinfecting techniques
    • Daily cleaning of doorknobs, sinks, and other frequently touched surfaces
  • Being aware of scams about vaccines and cures
    • Watch out for phishing emails that may appear they are from trusted sources
  • Make a phone contact list for emergencies
    • Include family and friends as well as local aid, medical and social service organizations

Practice Good Hygiene

You may be tired of singing the happy birthday song while washing your hands for 20-seconds with soap and water, but it’s important to continue reminding community members and park and recreation professionals about maintaining good hygiene. Continue to encourage community members to follow CDC’s recommendations on how to stay healthy, including avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, staying home when you are sick, covering your cough and sneeze with tissues, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces regularly.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, park and recreation professionals can take an active role in promoting these health behaviors across their communities. In addition, agencies and leadership teams should reinforce these behaviors with staff. The health and safety of park and recreation professionals is just as critical as the health and safety of the whole community, mentally, physically and emotionally. Prepare, monitor, listen to trusted information from public health officials, and do your best to act rationally at this time.


For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

If you have any questions or would like to share how your agency is responding, please reach out to Allison Colman, NRPA's Director of Health.