How can park and recreation agencies encourage people to become more active? Building fitness-related park amenities such as trails and fitness equipment was one of the first steps for the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, but staff knew it would take more. Residents needed encouragement to hit the more than 120 miles of trails in city parks, including 45 miles of paved greenway trails. From this positive challenge came an array of new programming to help residents get moving.
To give residents an additional incentive to use these great amenities the department developed the Ride to Own bicycle program, initially funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) federal stimulus dollars. Ride to Own offered opportunities for individuals to participate in educational sessions such as bicycle safety, bicycle maintenance, developing routes, etc., and a series of bicycle rides of increasing distances. Participants who completed a required number of educational sessions and rides earned a bicycle to keep at the end of the program. In the initial installment, more than 300 participants from eight community centers received new bikes. The department has continued this program through additional grant opportunities. “This program teaches residents how to ride safely and maximize fitness, and gives them the tools to make cycling part of their regular exercise routine after the session ends,” says Mayor Julián Castro.
As an offshoot of Ride to Own, the department created the Walk This Way San Antonio program. Walk This Way targeted average citizens to get them out of the house and walking. The program offered a series of educational sessions in addition to walks of increasing length. It also provided an incentive to the participants who completed the required number of educational sessions and walks in the form of a gift certificate for a shoe fitting and pair of walking shoes (valued at $100) from a local shoe store. In the initial offering, 180 participants at 10 community centers received vouchers after completing the program. By reaching out to walking and running resources already available in San Antonio, staff members were able to create a comprehensive walking instruction toolkit. The educational sessions included information on:
- Walking equipment (proper shoes, clothing, water bottles, flashlights, etc.);
- Correct posture and walking techniques to help prevent injuries;
- Guidelines and demonstrations for appropriate stretching;
- Walking safety (walking in pairs/small groups, not listening to music or having other distractions that detract from awareness, avoiding stray dogs, etc.);
- Basic first aid tips for injuries;
- And developing routes (using sidewalks/crosswalks, identifying well-lighted areas, measuring distances, etc.).
Each of the educational sessions was followed by a walk of increasing length, allowing the participants to build up endurance over time. Some groups started with a half-mile to a mile for the original walks. They increased that distance to three miles in less than an hour by the end of the program. The improved endurance gave them the confidence to continue walking and the knowledge that they could walk in any 5K and be able to complete the event. The participants indicated that they enjoyed the program and met new people who became their walking partners. Some of the participants have since established regular walking groups as part of their physical activity routines.
The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department continues to provide opportunities and incentives for citizens and visitors to participate in physical activities. These include the Fitness in the Park program, which has offered more than 4,000 free fitness classes to 35,000 participants throughout the community, and the Fit Pass SA program, which connected people to available wellness resources by offering more than 150 events in its first year. As a highly populated military city, the department is also proud of the Troops for Fitness program, a segment of Fitness in the Park in which veterans offer instruction for fitness classes. Also, the department is excited about a new mobile fitness vehicle currently in design that is anticipated to be out on the streets in late spring. The mobile fitness vehicle will take fitness equipment and instructors to new locations throughout the park system and the city.
“We must offer myriad opportunities for physical fitness in order to reach all of our residents,” explains City Manager Sheryl Sculley. “Finding the right activity fit will help to encourage residents to make exercise a part of their healthy lifestyles on a permanent basis.”