Years ago, when I lived in West Houston the walking park near my house amenities were upgraded and the trails expanded: The paved trails were widened to accommodate cyclist and walker, more exercise stations were added, trees were planted, restroom were updated, more water fountains were added and the total length of the trail was lengthened. When all the work was complete, it was possible to bike 40 miles round trip on a bike without accessing city streets.
Park planners hypothesized that the newly renovated park would encourage couch potatoes to be more physically active. The renovation occurred during a time when Houston was considered the Fattest City in America. There was an alternate hypothesis; the park would be used more by people who were already physically active.
Physical Activity Level Depends on Neighborhood Design
This park was in walking or biking distance for a large portion of the residents in the surrounding area. The City added and widened sidewalks on both sides of the main thoroughfares to make the park more accessible. The idea was to get people to walk or bike to the park, not drive.
It turns out both hypothesis were proven valid. Those of us who are accustomed to regular physical activity used the park more frequently. Later when lights were added regular users increased their usage around the clock. The park also became a place where parents and young children could participate together in activities. Because of its easy access and added amenities more people were leaving their couches to walk, bike and take the kids.
If You Build it, They will Come
Most of the current research show that upgrading a park’s facilities, cleaning up graffiti and increasing accessibility improves usage. This occurs regardless of socioeconomic levels. For families at the lowest end of the economic scale, clean parks and recreation centers are the biggest determinant in regards to regular use. Higher income families only increase use slightly due to cleaning or added amenities.
The baby boom generation follows a similar usage trend as low income families. It is important to make parks accessible to increase usage by adding more trees, restrooms and keep it clean. Interestingly, fears over crime and safety do not appear to be significant concerns about park usage for young or old.
Parks and recreation centers are associated with increased physical activity. Physical activity is linked to a healthy weight which lowers risk of morbidity and mortality from several chronic diseases and conditions. Approximately, 2/3 of the U.S. adult and 1/3 of kids are overweight. Physical activity can prevent and reduce these levels.
While the U.S. population has become more overweight, our levels of physical activity have been on the decline over the past several decades. Americans tend to drive even when traveling only 1 to 2 miles. The decline in physical activity increases as we go from elementary age to high school. Males tend to be more physically active than across all age groups.
We have become so inactive that Sedentary Behavior (time spent sitting) is a newly identified chronic disease risk factor that is behaviorally and physiologically different than physical inactivity. Sedentary Behavior predicts all causes of heart disease even after adjusting for physical activity or fitness level. TV viewing time is related to several health outcomes, include obesity and heart disease deaths. TV’s effects on health are linked to prolonged sitting, eating while viewing and exposure to food advertising that may influence unhealthy food choices.
Time spent in cars are directly related to a higher body weight and body fat. Research show that each additional hour of daily driving is associated with a 6% increase in the odds of obesity. People who live in a neighborhood farther from their destinations such as work or shopping tend to be more sedentary and subject to poorer health outcomes. The more cars in your household the least likely you are to achieve the recommended amount of physical activity in your life.
Seventy percent of older adults are deficient in physical activity to illicit cardiovascular and metabolic health benefits. Only 42% of children 6-11 and 8% of adolescents 12-19 meet the recommended 60 minutes of exercise daily.
People living in rural or densely populated lower income cities tend to be more active than higher income suburban areas. Parent of kids in these areas are more engaged with their children and assure that their kids play outside instead of watching TV. Parents of rural and inner city kids allow their children to utilize local parks and recreation centers, especially if the parks and centers are well kept and clean. This holds true until adolescence. Upper middle class kids tend to play more video games and watch TV with less parental supervision.
Neighborhood Design Predicts Physical Activity
City planners are advised to assure that parks and recreation centers are kept clean and amenities are up to date. Lower income elder people tend to walk more while higher income senior citizens drive. This is the case especially where sidewalks and are mass transit are available.
A neighborhood designed for walking and biking are reliable predictors of physical activity, which reduce the risk of obesity. For example people who walk or use mass transit tend to have lower body weight, irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity.
Lastly, neighborhoods parks and recreations center with biking and walking trails, playgrounds basketball and tennis courts residents expend more energy than neighborhoods without. City managers need to ensure that a parks resources meet the needs of the community to ensure health benefits are achieved. This includes adding additional courts, miles of varying trails, trees for shade, water fountains and plenty of playground space.
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