Parks and Recreation: The Secret to a Long, Healthy Life?

May 8, 2019, Department, by Allison Colman

2019 May Health and Wellness Parks and Rec Secret to Happy Life 410

Last year, I had the opportunity to hear adventurer and author, Dan Buettner, speak at the Agents of Change Summit. Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and award-winning journalist, is the discoverer of “Blue Zones®” — the places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives.

Originally inspired by a trip to Japan, Buettner and a team of demographers discovered five places — Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California — where people have the longest life expectancy in the world. Research in each of these Blue Zones ultimately determined that the areas and the people living there share nine lifestyle habits that contribute to the overall quality of life and longevity in these communities. These nine habits are called the “Power 9®” and include:

  • Move Naturally: The world’s longest-living people reside in environments that constantly encourage and require them to move naturally (no, they aren’t pumping iron on the regular).
  • Purpose: Okinawans call it “ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” It translates to “Why I wake up in the morning.” Having a sense of purpose can drastically improve quality of life.
  • Down Shift: Everyone experiences stress, but people living in Blue Zones have found ways to effectively manage their stress — whether it’s using relaxation techniques, forming a connection to their culture, praying or even napping.
  • 80% Rule: For Okinawans, a 2,500-year-old mantra reminds them to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. It’s thought that the 20 percent between feeling a bit hungry and being full could be responsible for losing or gaining weight.
  • Plant Slant: A plant-based diet is the norm in each of the Blue Zones, with beans being the cornerstone of most diets in people living to 100+ (sorry folks, no mention of that trendy Keto diet contributing to long life).
  • Wine @ 5: People in Blue Zones drink alcohol regularly but in moderation (shout out to my fellow wine lovers). The key word here is “moderation” — the Blue Zones philosophy is 1–2 glasses per day with friends and food.
  • Right Tribe: The world’s longest-living people choose social circles that support healthy behaviors. Studies show that smoking, obesity, happiness and even loneliness are contagious, so social networks are key to living a healthy lifestyle.
  • Loved Ones First: Families come first for those making it to 100+. These communities keep family members close by, especially aging parents and grandparents, and they spend time with their children as a family unit.
  • Belong: Faith is an important part of the Blue Zones culture, with most people belonging to some sort of faith-based or spiritual group.

What Buettner shared that day about his discovery of the Blue Zones and the Power 9 stuck with me on a personal and professional level. On a personal level, I was eager to examine how my own lifestyle lives up to the Power 9 (I’m pretty solid on the social circles, sense of belonging, purpose, movement and wine @ 5!) and where it falls short (managing stress, re-evaluating my diet, spending more time with family). On a professional level, I couldn’t help but think about the role of parks and recreation within this philosophy, and how the benefits that parks and recreation provides are connected to so many of these positive lifestyle characteristics.

Where Parks Fit into the Power 9

Move Naturally: Park and recreation facilities, amenities and programs support most communities in their efforts to move more. While that may take place in a more structured setting (e.g., group exercise classes, sports programming and chronic disease prevention programs), parks and recreation is often responsible for creating and maintaining environments that foster natural movement, including establishing and expanding trail networks that connect neighborhoods and support active transportation or developing community gardens that require physical labor to maintain plots.

Down Shift: In most communities, parks and recreation is the provider and protector of green space and of natural ecosystems and habitats. Several studies support the idea that more green space results in greater mental health for communities, including improvements in the ability to manage stress. In addition to connecting people to green space, parks and recreation provides ample activities that focus on managing stress and anxiety, such as arts and cultural enrichment activities, yoga, tai chi and meditation opportunities.

80% Rule and Plant Slant: Parks and recreation also has a significant role in promoting healthy dietary habits, including providing meals to youth and older adults attending programs, promoting community gardens and farmers markets, and working with youth, older adults and families to improve nutrition knowledge and change behaviors. In 2018, NRPA even released a set of plant-based diet resources for agencies providing nutrition education to youth, families and older adults in their communities. These plant-based resources offer alternatives to animal proteins and provide healthy recipes using plant-based ingredients for breakfasts, dinners and snacks.

Finding the Right Tribe: The physical health benefits for youth and older adults attending park and recreation programs are well-documented — we know that people are moving more and eating healthier. But, what about the social benefits of these programs? A recent study of summer programs in parks and recreation demonstrates that programs have a positive impact on social and emotional well-being, with 90 percent of youth reporting they made new friends and felt happier post summer camp intervention, 82 percent of youth indicating they had more confidence than at the beginning of the summer program and 74 percent of campers reporting they felt less stressed when attending the summer program.

A Response to Life Expectancy Declines
New threats and challenges to our healthy living status continue to emerge, including rising public health concerns around social isolation, depression, suicide and pain management. These threats, combined with the continued influence of chronic disease, are causing a decline in life expectancy in the United States. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released updated data on life expectancy in America, with CDC Director Robert Redfield acknowledging rising trends in drug overdose and suicide and referencing other preventable conditions as contributing factors. He called for Americans to “work together to reverse this trend and help ensure that all Americans live longer and healthier lives.” While this is a significant issue to tackle, the Blue Zones philosophy provides a blueprint for success and hope that this trend can be reversed.

To answer the CDC’s call and work to reverse this negative trend in life expectancy, parks and recreation can be more intentional in its efforts to improve quality of life, looking to the Power 9 as a guide. We should focus on the following:

  • continue to build our communities so people can move naturally
  • strive to serve healthy foods and educate families about maintaining a well-balanced, plant-based diet
  • offer programming and green space that help the communities we serve manage stress
  • grow our efforts to help people find their tribe, socialize (outside of the digital world) and determine their “plan de vida”
  • create new family engagement opportunities that support parents and caregivers spending quality time with their children and creating intergenerational connections
  • expand our efforts to create cultural and enrichment activities that engage community members from different backgrounds and foster a sense of belonging

While parks and recreation may not be getting into the winemaking business anytime soon (I’ll keep this on the back burner for our 2020 trends issue), it’s clear there is significant growth potential for the field around many of the nine lifestyle trends, perhaps, most urgently, within the social and emotional dimension, specifically targeting youth and older adults to address substance misuse, social isolation and depression.

It’s not going to be an easy task, but parks and recreation has always risen to the challenge. And, thanks to the Blue Zones, we already have the answers.

Allison Colman (she/her/hers) is NRPA’s Director of Health.