Study: satisfying safety, liability concerns could boost use of school physical activity facilities

February 25, 2004

CHAPEL HILL — Safety, insurance and liability concerns are the biggest barriers to be overcome before children and adults can benefit more from using school physical activity facilities during non-school hours, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study concludes.The chief value of such use would be increased opportunities to be more physically active, study authors say, and hence, possibly, better health for both youths and adults.

A report on the findings appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. Authors are Dr. Kelly R. Evenson, research assistant professor, and Aileen P. McGinn, a doctoral student, both in epidemiology at the UNC School of Public Health.

“The surgeon general of the United States recommended that all adults and children accumulate 30 minutes or more of at least moderate-intensity activity on most, preferably all, days of the week,” Evenson said. “A more recent consensus conference recommended 60 minutes per day of at least moderate-intensity activity for all youth.”

Despite those recommendations, in 1999, 35 percent of U.S. high school students did not participate in regular vigorous exercise, she said. There appears to be a steady decline in leisure activity with advancing grade levels.

“Among adults in the year 2000, 27 percent reported no leisure activities in the previous month,” the researcher said. “Physical activity levels remain too low in the United States, and lack of convenient facilities is one potential barrier.”

Healthy People 2010 is a statement of national health objectives designed to identify the most significant preventable public health problems and to establish goals to reduce those problems by 2010, she said. One of its numerous objectives is to increase the proportion of the country’s public and private schools that provide access to physical activity facilities before and after school and on weekends.

“If people have access to more physical activity opportunities near their homes, they may be more likely to be physically active,” Evenson said.

She and McGinn studied local schools and colleges in four relatively populous areas in the United States to document the availability of exercise facilities and why some are not open for public use. They used telephone surveys and site visits to gather information from 235 public schools, 93 private schools and 23 colleges.

Facilities included 319 playgrounds, 198 all-purpose fields, 115 soccer fields, 244 softball or baseball fields, 93 outdoor tracks and 332 tennis courts.

“At least two-thirds of the time, schools with outdoor facilities were available to the public,” she said. “More than three-fourths of the schools that allowed public access said their facilities were used often or very often.”

For schools that did not make indoor exercise areas and equipment available to the public, the chief reasons were that they were for student use only, supervision and personnel were required and safety was a concern. Those that did not allow non-student use of outdoor areas also cited concerns, including safety, insurance and liability or that they belonged to the church.

“Approximately two-thirds of respondents from schools that allowed their facilities to be used said they did not experience problems with the public,” Evenson said. “The most common perceived problems among the remaining third were overuse, inadequacy for public demand and the possibility of damage or vandalism.”

The most common benefits to allowing public access to the schools’ physical activity facilities including providing space for physical activity in the community and good relations with the community, she said. Public schools were more likely to have facilities openly available than were private schools and colleges.

This news release was researched and written by David Williamson of University News Services.

Note: Evenson can be reached at (919) 966-4187.

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, (919) 966-7467

News Services Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596