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The Role of Parks and Rec in Public Health

Written by Jennifer Elliott

The role of local government is to improve the lives of its citizens and constituents. For parks and recreation departments, improving the lives of residents means access to local resources and programs that provide education, health and wellness services, socialization, and access to natural resources. Now brace yourself for a shocking statistic: 97 percent of Americans live an unhealthy lifestyle according to the 2016 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey.

97 percent.

The study found that by far most Americans are not getting enough exercise, eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding nicotine.

This concerning statistic reinforces the role that local government parks and recreation departments can play in reinforcing wellness as a lifestyle choice and providing citizens with affordable, convenient access to wellness and fitness services and public resources. If the idea of tackling rising rates of obesity, substance abuse, and inactivity feels too overwhelming for your limited staff and resources, understand that your parks and rec department is still capable of making a big impact in your community’s population-level physical activity rates.

Promote Public Parks

Your parks and rec department can already offer citizens one of the greatest resources possible for getting active and losing weight: access to public parks. According to The Mayo Clinic, the simple act of walking outdoors can help individuals:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Prevent or manage various health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and type II diabetes
  • Strengthen muscles and bones
  • Improve your emotional well-being
  • Improve your balance and coordination

More specifically, the opportunity to walk in nature offers additional emotional and physical benefits. According to Psychology Today, in a world where we are over-committed to deadlines, tethered to multiple devices, and experiencing epic levels of stress and anxiety, time spent in nature offers a crucial opportunity to enjoy a reprieve from responsibilities and stimuli that cause stress.

Make your public parks the core component of your public health strategy today. Put a plan together to promote to citizens access to your public parks and consider forming walking groups, geocaching events, and other opportunities to encourage public participation.

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Expand Park Offerings to Enable Moderate to Intense Physical Activity

While outdoor walking offers many health benefits, especially for individuals who are just beginning to alter their lifestyle to become more active, for many people, more moderate and intense levels of physical activity may be needed to lose weight, mitigate health risks, and further stimulate a change in lifestyle behaviors. While the presence of well-maintained park trails should be a critical component of your public health strategy, make sure your parks offer additional services so that citizens have more options for additional activities.

Depending on the physical makeup of your parks, consider adding kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals, a skateboard park, basketball and tennis courts, or even something as simple as pull up bars. Individuals who diversify their physical activities will be more likely to maintain healthy habits, especially if they can do so while socializing with friends and family.

Do Not Forget Children’s Activities

Unhealthy lifestyle habits we embrace as adults often become part of our lives during adolescent years. According to The State of Obesity, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reveals that the national obesity rate among youth ages 2 to 19 is 18.5 percent. Help parents encourage their children to get active and help teach youth the importance of physical activity as a lifelong lifestyle commitment. Ensure you are offering seasonal youth leagues, classes, camps, and community sporting events for youth of all ages and physical ability levels.

Take a Data-Driven Approach to Programming

Every community is unique. From mountainside communities with a ski culture to coastal sailing towns to senior communities where shuffleboard and yoga are all the rage, every community has individualized interests that align with its typography and community offerings. Understand how your parks and rec offerings can better align with your citizens’ interests and needs by monitoring park activities and surveying citizens. The combination of quantitative and qualitative data can help you gauge where gaps in services and additional engagement opportunities may exist.


No matter how tightly budgets and staff resources continue to constrict, there will always be a need for parks and recreation departments. Moreover, even if, as a nation, we accomplish our goals of banishing childhood obesity and realize plummeting rates of heart disease, Type II Diabetes, and stress, we will always need public parks and community recreational activities to continue to fuel our need for individual and socially based wellness opportunities. By embracing your department’s role in improving public health, your community will benefit from happier, healthier, more engaged residents of every age.