Low-Risk Programming to Build Healthy Communities

November 30, 2013, Department, by Sarah Martsolf-Brooks

Thanks to a shuttle van donated after its retirement from the public transit fleet, Palisade Recreation is able to offer inexpensive trips, such as this hiking excursion to Hanging Lake.As obesity and depression become increasing concerns, health professionals are making fitness and the outdoors focal points of patient prescriptions. This has created a platform for recreation agencies to effectively guide communities in a healthy direction. 

There are many fitness profiles; some people prefer fitness classes, others want a fully equipped gym, while still more choose to exercise outside. As recreation professionals plan for each season, it is important to take into consideration the reasons why individuals are motivated to become more active and the types of activities they will pursue. Recreation professionals need to look at the underserved demographics in their communities, striving to bring new faces into their parks and get families moving together.   

Implementing new programs can pose challenges for agencies, especially if there is no way to speculate participation numbers and the overall success of a program. From the consumer standpoint, jumping into something new can be intimidating and may pose a financial risk. Keeping operating costs low is a benefit to the agency and will help to provide free and low-cost programs for the community.

Palisade, Colorado, is an agricultural community of 3,000, surrounded by vast desert and alpine country with more than 300 miles of trails and open space. The demographics are composed of families on fixed incomes, farmers, wine makers, migrant workers and many retired individuals with disposable income.

As a young recreation department, determining the needs of the community has been a trial-and-error process. Without knowing which programs would be successful, it was important that programs were low-risk in order to run them multiple times to build interest without causing major debts to the budget. Palisade is known for a variety of special events; with access to a large audience, it is easy to introduce active components that naturally complement the event. Some examples include guided hikes and yoga offered during the Palisade Bluegrass and Roots Festival, old-fashioned games added to the annual Town Council ice-cream social, activity demos at the farmers’ market, and simple obstacle courses set up for youth after school. Other agencies might consider including a mini sports challenge as part of a special event, such as a pitching competition or hoops challenge. Showcasing these activities during special events has helped the department to determine which activities can stand alone as programs.

Simplicity is another key component when working to keep the cost low for agencies and consumers. Beginner and 101 programs are appealing to adults, allowing participants the opportunity to test the waters with little risk involved. Each summer, Palisade Recreation partners with the local bike shop to offer introductory paddleboard classes on the ponds in Riverbend Park. The same instructors have offered rafting 101 classes and charged the town nominal fees to offer evening float trips. REI offered free snowshoe demos, which has since developed into a regular winter program. Running has become popular, and many people who are getting into better shape set goals to run a 5K race. Palisade recently offered a “train for a 5K” program, an eight-week class preparing participants to run in a race put on by nearby Grand Junction Parks and Recreation.  

In efforts to increase attendance at fitness classes and recreation programs, “do it on your own” programs have been offered as well. For these programs, registration was free to participants, who were encouraged to track their steps or were given points for attendance at active programs. Participants earning a certain number of points in one month were eligible for prizes. Other agencies in Colorado have challenged their recreation users to swim, bike or run “across the state” or “climb a Colorado 14er” (a mountain taller than 14,000 feet) by attaining 14,000 steps in a day. 

Families were encouraged to get active together through a weekly Family Fun Night, featuring games such as volleyball, dodgeball, kickball, capture the flag, ghosts in the graveyard and water games. Some parents commented that with limited time together as a family, they would opt for something they could all physically benefit from. Youngsters and their parents gather for evening bike rides in the summer, and during the week of Thanksgiving, Palisade Recreation hosts a bike ride for a canned-food drive. 

In efforts to target a different interest group, Palisade Recreation teams up with a local radio station to host seasonal geocache events. The events are free and held for a few hours on a Saturday. People of all skill levels come out to hunt for event specific caches. Experts attending the event are willing to help newcomers navigate their GPS units and teach them tricks of the trade. Geocaching is a great family activity — by the end of the event, participants have easily walked one to three miles, and some teens have even claimed they felt “tricked” into outdoor fun. Programs integrating technology are also great ways to promote intergenerational participation, encouraging a grandparent and grandchild to spend time together, and many times the grandparent gains further understanding of tech devices. Recreation programmers could also offer scavenger hunts using digital cameras or smartphones. Scavenger hunts can be very beneficial to downtown businesses, which in turn could help drum up prizes and financial support.

Another great way to get communities active is by creating interest groups, which might meet weekly or monthly. Palisade has a very successful hiking group that meets most Mondays to hike all over the Grand Valley for a small fee. Through the community garden, there is a monthly lecture on a gardening topic, drawing in novices and experts alike. Riverbend Park is heavily used for a variety of interest groups, such as bird watchers, star gazers, dog lovers and disc golfers. Palisade Recreation frequently partners with local organizations to offer free clinics for various interest groups. 

Offering a variety of ways to get active has helped Palisade Recreation draw in new participants and expand the skillsets of repeat users.

Sarah Martsolf-Brooks is the Recreation and Events Coordinator for the Town of Palisade, Colorado