The Quest For Physical Fitness

By Don L. Jones and Teresa Penbrooke

In the not-so-distant past, a visit to one of the many sites owned and managed by municipal parks and recreation departments would have been considered “going to the playground.” Where I grew up, in Richmond, Va., there were many neighborhood playgrounds, often within blocks of most homes. We were clearly within the “10-minute-walk” threshold promoted by The Trust for Public Land.


Those playgrounds usually consisted of swing sets, sliding boards, softball/baseball fields, horseshoe pits, tennis courts, and basketball/volleyball courts with a covered area for arts and crafts. These recollections of playgrounds still bear some semblance to parks and recreation features of today. However, one of the missing links from my youth is the mention of the word “fitness.”

Back then, kids didn’t know what they were doing was making them “fit.” We were just playing. And play we did. From morning until noon when our playground would temporarily close (we never figured out why except maybe to give the staff members a break and force us to go home and eat lunch). We would reconvene at 6 p.m. and play some more until the park officially closed at 10 p.m. We would all lobby to be the one who got to climb the telephone pole and pull the switch that shut off the lights.

Today’s neighborhood parks contain even more ways to play and get fit. Many neighborhood and community parks now contain “walking loops,” bike paths, dog parks (gotta get Fido fit as well), pools, and even outdoor exercise equipment—now referred to as “fitness zones.” Researchers have long touted the benefits of outdoor exercise. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, “as little as five minutes of green exercise improves both mood and self-esteem.”[1]

Do Your Part
So, what can parks and recreation agencies do to help promote physical activity? Start with fresh air. The authors of a study that examined environmental correlates of physical activity found that trails, open spaces, golf courses, and natural settings were more likely to be associated with physical activity than recreation centers, exercise facilities, and sports facilities. In their conclusion, the authors recommended setting physical activity as a priority in park policies.[2]

Consider the following:

  • People who use parks and open spaces are three times more likely to achieve the recommended levels of physical activity than non-users.

  • Seventy-three percent of adults believe parks, trails, and open spaces are an essential part of the healthcare system.

  • Older adults engage in three-and-a-half times more physical activity in parks with walking loops.[3]

That doesn’t take anything away from the hospital wellness industry, the private clubs, or YMCAs, for that matter. What they do, though, is underscore the fact that there are many more regional, community, and neighborhood parks in the USA than there are private clubs, YMCAs, and hospital wellness centers combined.

There are currently 108,000 public parks and 65,000 indoor facilities managed by 9,000 park and recreation departments. In comparison, there are only 36,540 health clubs (including YMCAs, community centers, studios, etc.) in the USA.


Furthermore, these same parks, by definition, reach the masses in their communities and neighborhoods, and are more affordable than facilities managed by the private sector. In fact, seven million people live within a 10-minute walk to a park or natural area. It is becoming increasingly clear that proximity to parks and recreation settings is associated with increased physical activity.

There are amenities that parks and recreation agencies and departments can add to enhance fitness opportunities, especially for older adults. For example, a study by the Rand Corporation (May 18, 2016) revealed that features such as walking loops, gymnasiums, and exercise areas have been found to increase physical activity among older adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Trails for Health Initiative has found that a connected system of trails increases the level of physical activity in a community.[4] Several groups, including American Trails, have created resources explaining the many benefits: as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guide to Community Preventive Services,”

In addition, many architects are now recommending moving recreation centers towards wellness (see the photo rendition below). This is a step forward in identifying parks and recreation agencies as advocates for community health and wellness initiatives—a logical progression for the profession.

Recreation Centers as Wellness Centers (photo courtesy of Studio Gang Architects, Biagi, G., Studio Gang Architects), Innovation Lab: Envisioning and Implementing Abundant Communities. Florida Recreation and Parks Association Annual Conference – August 28 – 31, 2017.

Here are a few initiatives that have been created to assist in the fight to encourage people to get moving:

Park Prescription
A physician in Washington, D.C.—convinced by the scientific data that reconnecting with nature can alleviate some of the common maladies and stresses often associated with city life—began a parks prescription program. Instead of writing a prescription for a pharmaceutical agent, he prescribed a stroll in the park.[5]

The idea of a park prescription has grown so much that there is now a National ParkRx Day, which falls on the last Sunday of National Park Week every year. Additionally, National ParkRx Day encourages people to start seeing visits to parks and public lands as important parts of their health. In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General released a call to action to promote walking and walkable communities. For details on this initiative, see

A review of the literature reveals that “park prescriptions are more effective when coupled with follow-up by a health-care professional, information on local resources, or an incentive, such as a park pass.” Written prescriptions were found to be more effective than verbal ones.[6]

Walk With A Doc
Dr. David Sabgir, a cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio, became frustrated with his inability to affect behavior change in the clinical setting, so he invited his patients to go for a walk with him in a local park on a Saturday morning in spring. To his surprise, over 100 people showed up, energized and ready to move. Since that first event in 2005, “Walk with a Doc’” has grown as a grassroots effort, with a model based on sustainability and simplicity. See for more information.

Public-Health Implications
The role of parks and recreation agencies in promoting physical fitness continues to evolve as we discover the benefits of being outside and the impact of nature on our well-being. The shift from “playgrounds” to parks with fitness initiatives, equipment, and programming has some significant public-health implications:

“Public-health (PH) evidence has increasingly pointed to local parks and recreation (P&R) agencies as a critical setting for promoting preventive health. Addressing desired PH outcomes is a growing focus for P&R agencies. There are a variety of programs and potential strategies available, but most agencies have limited resources and lack proven strategies on which to base their actions. However, the research base is growing. The global research question has shifted from asking IF P&R agencies can positively affect PH factors to HOW they can best do so with limited resources.” [7]

Penbrooke (2017) found that two of the factors that appeared to be the most modifiable by P&R are increased physical activity and improved nutrition. In addition, she found that creating a culture of health in P&R and implementing a systematic approach to addressing preventive health can be the most effective strategies.

Initiatives such as ParkRx and Walk with a Doc address the ability for agencies to increase physical activity. Other studies have noted the role of P&R in obesity prevention and improvement in the public’s health. [8]

In addition, it is widely recognized that different P&R agencies have limited resources to initiate programs that may have a positive impact on PH. With that in mind, it has been suggested that health partnerships “represent a viable strategy for pooling resources to increase efficiency and expand services to the community.” The most common types of organizations mentioned were schools, hospitals/clinics, health departments, nonprofit health organizations (e.g., Arthritis Foundation, Diabetes Association, Heart Association), YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, news media (i.e., newspapers, television, radio, Internet), insurance companies, fitness clubs, and senior centers. [9]

While most agencies do not have all of the resources available in order to carry out wide-ranging PH efforts, it is also evident that a collaboration of public-health professions and parks and recreation agencies have a great deal to offer community participants by strengthening the efforts among healthcare professionals, public-health professionals, and parks and recreation professionals. While it is recognized that a good deal of work is already underway at the state and federal levels, there needs to be more done at the local level. [10]

The good news is that this work is now ongoing. We’ve come a long way from swings and slides to trails and programs like Walk with a Doc, Park Rx, and health partnerships. When I worked for the parks and recreation department in Richmond, Va., there was a saying: “Your fun is my business.” We can now say, “Your health, fun, and fitness are ALL our business.”

[1] Pretty, j., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., Griffin, M. “The Mental and Physical Health Outcomes of Green Exercise.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15(5), October 2005.

[2] Kaczynski, A., Henderson, K., “Environmental Correlates of Physical Activity: A Review of Evidence about Parks and Recreation.” Leisure Sciences, 29, 315 – 354, 2007.

[3] Parks and Recreation: A True Health Solution (Infographic) Retrieved from, June 2017.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guide to Community Preventive Services,” retrieved from

[5] Sellers, F. D.C. “Doctor’s Rx: A Stroll in the Park Instead of a Trip to the Pharmacy.” The Washington Post, May 28, 2015.

[6] Gustat, J., Yhde, M. “Increasing Health Through Park Prescriptions: A Review of the Literature” (Abstract). Tulane University of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, (504) 988-1029, 2017.

[7] Penbrooke, T. “Local Parks and Recreation Agencies Use of Systems Thinking to Address Preventive Public Health Factors.” (Dissertation). North Carolina State University, 2017, available at

[8] Blanck, H., Allen, D., Bashir, Z., Gordon, N., Goodman, A. Merriam, D., and Rutt, C., “Let’s Go to the Park Today: The Role of Parks in Obesity Prevention and Improving the Public’s Health.” Childhood Obesity, 8(5), 2012.

[9] Liechty, t., Mowen, A., Payne, L., Henderson, K., Bocarro, J., Bruton, C., Godbey, G. “Public Park and Recreation Managers’ Experiences with Health Partnerships.” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 32(2), 2015.

[10] Librett, J., Henderson, K., Godbey, G. and Morrow, J. “An Introduction to Parks, Recreation, and Public Health: Collaborative Frameworks for Promoting Physical Activity.” Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 4, Supp., 2007.

Don L. Jones, Ph.D., is a Project Consultant for GreenPlayLLC, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism at George Mason University, and a Board Member of the Orange County Florida Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Reach him at

Dr. Teresa Penbrooke is the Director of the Healthy Communities Research Group for GP RED (, CEO and Founder of GreenPlay (, and a Visiting Scholar at North Carolina State University. Reach her at