June 26, 2015
A new study across six regions of the United States found that the availability of physical activity resources, such as parks and recreational facilities, varies by locations’ sociodemographic characteristics.
The study was led by Sydney A. Jones, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. Jones and Kelly R. Evenson, PhD, research professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School, worked with co-authors from Drexel University, the University of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a paper titled, “Disparities in physical activity resource availability in six US regions,” published online June 26 by Preventive Medicine.
Previous research shows that proximity to recreational resources — spaces such as public parks and commercial recreational facilities like gyms — is associated with more physical activity among community members. When individuals can access a diverse range of exercise options, research suggests they are more likely to engage in activity, to keep moving throughout the year and even to exert themselves more intensely during recreational sessions.
Jones and her colleagues analyzed data collected by the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) in six cities, representing the areas where nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population lives. With this information, the researchers determined how the availability of parks and recreational facilities correlated with the characteristics of the local population, including race/ethnicity, income and age.
They found that there are fewer parks and recreational facilities in some, but not all, predominantly minority areas compared to areas with a high non-Hispanic white population. Low-income areas and those with a high percentage of children have average or above-average park availability, but below-average numbers of other recreational facilities. However, the patterns varied by site.
Explained Jones: “The different patterns in different places in the country underline the importance of evaluating access to park and recreational resources at the local level. We need to adopt tailored strategies to address disparities where they exist.”
People with limited transportation options — especially children and older adults — have a special need for local availability of diverse recreational resources. Many people in these two age groups do not meet physical activity guidelines, and access to parks and others spaces could help.
Some factors contributing to recreational resource disparities may include local government policies and zoning regulations. The co-authors of this paper suggest that where park and recreational facilities are scarce, informing community leaders about the benefits of physical activity as well as current resource disparities may encourage efforts to foster equitable access.