Parks and Recreation: Meeting Community Fitness Needs at All Levels

June 1, 2017, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

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The focus of this issue of Parks & Recreation magazine is health and wellness. Thousands of park and recreation agencies throughout the United States are leading the way to improve health outcomes, whether it is to tackle obesity and physical inactivity or to counter the impact of hunger and poor nutrition. A major reason parks and recreation is on the forefront of health solutions is the ubiquity of local park and recreation facilities in our communities. When people have quality park and recreation facilities near them, they are more likely to use these resources to improve their health.

In the NRPA study Americans’ Engagement with Parks, we learned that seven in 10 Americans frequent their local parks on a regular basis. In fact, on average, Americans visited local park and recreation facilities 29 times over the past year, and the desire to be more physically active was a major driver for their visit. Better yet, three in five survey respondents told us that they had visited a local park or recreation facility at least once within a month of taking the survey. Who are the most frequent users of local park and recreation facilities? The more frequent users include Millennials, people who identify themselves as Hispanic, and parents of younger children.

Having a quality park or recreation facility nearby is perhaps the most important factor in determining just how frequently someone uses these facilities. The good news is that 70 percent of respondents to the Engagement survey reported they had at least one park or recreation facility to which they could walk. The bad news is that means three in 10 Americans do not have a park within walking distance. This divide decreases the likelihood of these residents taking advantage of all that your agency has to offer for improved health.

Their ubiquity is not the only reason park and recreation agencies provide solutions for residents to be more active. It is also their general accessibility. Whereas local gyms and personal trainers may be intimidating for some people who now have a renewed interest in taking better care of themselves, the local park and recreation agency provides its residents with opportunities at all levels of fitness.

Fifty-six percent of agencies that participated in Park Metrics, the NRPA benchmarking resource, report offering their residents at least one gym, while 37 percent have at least one fitness center in their offerings. Other fitness-oriented facilities widely available for residents include indoor and outdoor pools and tracks, sports fields of all types and ice rinks. Four in five agencies also offer their residents classes on fitness enhancement, health and wellness, and a variety of sports (including team sports, aquatics, tennis, golf and the martial arts).

But, perhaps the more accessible and widely embraced health benefit provided by local park and recreation agencies is the open space and trail networks that provide people with a place to walk, run or ride a bike. In the most recent NRPA Park Pulse poll result, 90 percent of Americans said they at least occasionally walk for leisure or pleasure. Their favorite places to walk include the beach, along a river, a local park, a local trail and at a gym or recreation center. As the majority of these resources are either free or available for very low costs, financial concerns do not keep anyone from taking advantage of them to become more physically fit.

Setting the Tone for Improved Community Wellness
Providing quality facilities and services is not the only way park and recreation agencies improve the health of their community — it is also the broader actions they take that set the tone for improved wellness in the community. In turn, there is strong public support for park and recreation agencies to set the standard for better decisions. Recent NRPA Park Pulse polls revealed the following:

  • 79 percent of Americans support policies that prohibit the use of all tobacco products at public parks and recreation facilities.
  • 67 percent of Americans believe it is important that vending machines and concession stands in their local park and recreation facilities include healthy food and drink options.
  • 83 percent of Americans agree that park and recreation centers should provide children with opportunities for physical activity outside of school grounds. This is critical as schools are shrinking the amount of time they dedicate in their curriculum for gym and outdoor time.

The data above provides park and recreation professionals with yet another opportunity to make the case for more stable and increased funding through the multiple ways they positively affect the community.

As important as your agency is to improving your community’s health, you can do even more to deliver on this promise. That is where NRPA Facility Market Reports (FMRs) come into play. FMRs offer key data and insights about the market served by your agency’s facilities. With this data, your agency gains a greater understanding of the residents served by a park, aquatic center, recreation center or any other facility. You give us an address and a radius to be analyzed (e.g., 10-minute walk, 15-minute drive) and we give you a wealth of data about the residents living near that facility. This helps ensure that the programming and capital investment decisions you make best serve the needs of the facility’s users.

There is a new version of the Facility Market Report that has a health and wellness focus, which explores the health characteristics of the residents living near the park or recreation facility you request to be studied. Data provided in these reports include weekly exercise habits, ownership rates of bicycles, participation in select recreation activities, prescription drug usage and dietary habits. If you are with an NRPA Premier Agency, you are eligible for complimentary Facility Market Reports annually. 

Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.