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Green Gyms and Medical Miles: Promoting Public Health with Parks

A group looks into a net near a stream at the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center. Credit: Jeff McAvoy.

We’ve previously looked at ways in which the medical community is using exercise prescriptions as a way to combat obesity and inactivity.  Park prescriptions are only a portion of the spectrum of exercise prescription programs. Fortunately, the growing awareness of the benefits of outdoor exercise – in addition to the cooperation of parks departments, environmental nonprofits, and individual parks – means that these programs should continue to grow.

Once patients have left the doctor’s office with a prescription in hand, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Someone has to ensure that public parks are meeting the needs of people trying to develop good exercise habits, and that newly inspired patients can find interesting and engaging ways to exercise in local parks.

A growing body of evidence that suggests that exercise in the outdoors provides some quantifiable benefits over indoor exercise. A study released February in the journal Environmental Science and Technology analyzed data from 11 different studies that compared benefits from outdoor and indoor exercise programs, and found that outdoor exercise was associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.” Not surprisingly, those who participated in outdoor exercise “stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”[1]

Promoting these mental benefits, which in turn lead to physical benefits, is one of the most effective ways for parks to remain at the center of exercise prescription efforts.  Green Gym, a program in the UK, exemplifies this approach. Green Gym began in 1997 as a project of Dr. William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Green Gym groups meet at least once a week to do several hours of gardening or conservation work, and results from the program demonstrate both physical and psychological benefits, according to a study done by The School of Health and Social Care at Oxford Brookes University. Researchers found a strong trend in decreased depression scores, as well as increases in muscular strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Another strategy for encouraging repeat park visits is helping to get family members and pets to join in.

Yes, pets – Albuquerque’s Prescription Trails program, in addition to human park prescriptions, offers walking prescriptions for overweight dogs (whose physiques often mimic that of their owners). Charm Linblad, Executive Director of New Mexico Health Care Takes on Diabetes, quips “from experience, you can’t turn down the dog when it is time for a walk, so when the veterinarian writes a prescription for the pet we get a double bonus – the owner gets a walk!”

Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center has seen success in encouraging repeat visits by offering inexpensive family memberships. The Center brings in school groups year-round to its “outdoor classrooms,” and then inspired kids often bring their families back to go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, or canoeing. The center is committed to never turning away visitors who cannot pay the full membership price, and has built a substantial base of four thousand households, undoubtedly in part due to the welcoming and exciting atmosphere that their website describes:

  • We want to get you outside! We love helping people have positive outdoor experiences and don’t mind at all if your experience starts by borrowing our equipment.
  • We don’t have sugar. Remember when you had to borrow a cup of sugar (or milk, or doughnuts) from your neighbor? Well, just substitute “kayak” for “cup of sugar.” We’re really just trying to be a good neighbor. A neighbor who shares lots of stuff.

Individual parks also have a role to play in forging connections with health. The Medical Mile, which winds through Little Rock, Arkansas’ Riverfront Park, is a good example of how parks can actively tout their contributions to public health. It is accented with motivating and informative information about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and smoking cessation. The Medical Mile is part of the 14-mile Arkansas River Trail, perfect for those who want to gradually ramp up their activity.

In an upcoming series of posts, we will excerpt a new report from the Center for City Park Excellence that looks at the specific relationship between health and parks, how individual parks – and entire city park systems – help people be healthier and more fit.  The report details more than 75 innovative features and programs – including 14 case studies – that maximize a park’s ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health.  We will show you how today’s efforts to design urban parks for their health benefits and to create health-enhancing park programming close a circle that extends all the way back to the beginning of the parks movement.


[1] Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772

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2 Responses

  1. I love the “Green Gym” idea. As a former gym aficionado who spent every morning workout inside with a trainer, I’m much happier not driving to a gym to breathe stale air inside while working out. I’ve even ran the stairs for workouts in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh is notorious for its hundreds of outdoor stairwells connecting neighborhoods). Another way cities can promote activity is by marking bike lanes on streets or providing separate bike lanes. This recently completed project in Pittsburgh has brought biking to everyone’s attention since you can’t miss seeing the lanes with their bike logo!

  2. [...] Parks to Pull Their Weight Posted on July 15, 2011 by Coleen Gentles We’ve written before about the need for urban parks to do more for public health. A new report by the Center for [...]

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