The meteoric rise in rates of overweight and obesity among Americans in the past two decades is largely due to sedentary activities. In fact, only 45 percent of Americans get the recommended minimum amount of exercise each week (30 minutes each day, most days of the week).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most cases of cancer, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and some forms of arthritis—the so-called lifestyle diseases—are directly or indirectly attributable to physical inactivity. Some experts even link Alzheimer’s diseases and depression to a sedentary lifestyle.
In his keynote address to the 2003 Congress of the National Recreation and Parks Association, Dr. Richard Carmona, then the U.S. Surgeon General, suggested that recreation programming just might be the antidote to American’s aversion to physical activity. He urged attendees to stake their claim as promoters of health and wellness — especially as it related to the war on overweight and obesity.
Indeed, Dr. Carmona’s admonition is supported by a large body of scientific research that shows that simple physical activity, such as a walk in the park, can help prevent or mitigate the majority of lifestyle-related diseases that afflict Americans.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
The CDC, a major proponent of modest physical activity to achieve health benefits, developed the Trails for Health program to provide opportunities for enjoyable, versatile and practical means of engaging in physical activity among communities. Surveys show that people who are inclined to a sedentary lifestyle are willing to participate in low-level activities that are fun and gregarious, such as those found in America’s parks.
Citing the results of these surveys, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, was quoted as saying that “families can improve their health and enjoy quality time together by being on our nation’s many trails.” Both Leavitt and Carmona are right: parks might be exactly what the doctor ordered.
In a study evaluating exercise patterns among 17,000 Harvard alumni, participants who engaged in simple sports and recreational activities significantly lowered their risk for heart disease. Another study conducted at multiple institutions, including Louisiana State University, found that moderate leisure time walking correlated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality among men and women of all ages. A significant portion of the 500,000 Americans who suffer from strokes each year can benefit from modest physical activity, according to researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Ann McTiernan and colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that, among 74,000 women ages 50 to 79, low-level physical activity reduced the incidence of breast cancer by 20 percent—even among women at high risk for the disease. Advanced age reduces functional capacities of vision, nerves, muscles, joints and the inner ear. Additionally, the brain loses its ability to integrate information derived from various elements needed to maintain balance. This accounts for the large numbers of elderly persons who sustain falls each year.
Among men and women ages 60 to 85 studied at the University of Otago Medical School in New Zealand, regular physical activity helped preserve their ability to maintain balance and spatial awareness, which resulted in a 46 percent reduction in falls.
The common theme among the medical research noted above is that moderate levels of physical activities—such as those available through parks and recreation programs and events—impart huge health benefits. The subjective benefits of a day in the park cannot be overlooked.
The Role Of Parks And Recreation
Parks and recreation activities can uplift one’s mood, augment self-efficacy, boost self-esteem, and promote overall quality of life. According to the CDC, walking on park trails can improve mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety, comparable to the effects of low-dose anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
Moreover, the spectrum of activities can appeal to people of all demographics and skill sets. In addition to walking, these activities include bicycling, swimming, horseback riding, hiking and hunting. Even wheelchair-bound persons can benefit from creative recreation programming, such as wheelchair basketball and wheelchair sprints.
The time has come for parks and recreation professionals to make the connection between health promotion and recreation programs and events. With over 800 million visits to parks and recreational facilities each year, Americans revere these facilities as the heart and soul of their communities. Parks and recreation workers should capitalize on this mindset and use their bully pulpit to market recreation activities for what they are: fun, relaxing opportunities to socialize—and a great way to promote health and wellness!
Dr. Bert Griffith is the director of the Wellness Teaching Center serving the U.S. military community in Okinawa, Japan. He is also the Far East representative of the Armed Forces Recreation Society.