6 Reasons Why Parks Matter for Health

Aug 22, 2016, 1:45 PM, Posted by Teresa Mozur

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary of beauty, recreation, and conservation this summer, we asked six leaders why access to public land is vital to everyone's physical and mental health.

Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park

The National Park Service celebrates its centennial this week, and our national parks have never been more appreciated; visitors made a record-breaking 307.2 million visits to them in 2015. But what many park goers may not realize is that the access to natural scenery and park activities national parks provide play a role in improving health. In fact, research shows that using public parks—even tiny local ones in your neighborhood—contributes to health in a number of ways, from promoting physical activity to improving mental health and even having the potential to reduce health care costs.

To celebrate this milestone in American history, the Culture of Health blog's editorial team asked six leaders to give us their reasons why parks matter for health.

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How Social Spending Affects Health Outcomes

Aug 17, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by Elizabeth H. Bradley, Lauren A. Taylor

The United States spends more on health care than any other developed nation, yet a recent study suggests social services could have a greater impact on health outcomes.

A hundred dollar bill. Modified image. Original photo by Ervins Strauhmanis.

In a recent blog post for The New York Times, Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, detailed important—and importantly nonmedical—barriers to health that he had witnessed in his patients: a man who couldn’t fathom worrying about his blood pressure when he needed to find food and a place to sleep, a diabetic without reliable access to a refrigerator to store insulin, a mother fretting that mold and cockroaches in her apartment were exacerbating her son’s asthma. Medical care might be necessary for these patients. But that care alone is unlikely to be sufficient.

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Honoring Andy Hyman: A Passionate Advocate for Health Equity

Aug 4, 2016, 9:37 AM, Posted by Brian C. Quinn

A new award celebrates and pays tribute to the life and work of Andy Hyman by recognizing a champion in the field of health advocacy.

The sunrise acts as a backdrop to the Capitol Building in D.C.

My boss and mentor Andy Hyman was the kind of visionary leader who instilled a deep sense of hope in everyone he came into contact with. He inspired in us a feeling that anything was possible. It’s this kind of unwavering hope that is needed when pursuing seemingly insurmountable goals—like the goal of ensuring that everyone in America has access to affordable, quality health care coverage.

Andy led the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) work on health insurance coverage from 2006 until shortly before his untimely death in 2015. One of the things I vividly remember was his deep conviction—even when progress seemed elusive—that we could make major strides toward improving coverage for those who needed it the most. 

Among his many wonderful qualities, Andy had keen political foresight that revealed itself when I started working with him back in 2006. He predicted a window to put the spotlight on health reform in 2008, regardless of who was elected president. In preparation, he led our team in building evidence to make the case for health reform and in bolstering the capacity of community of advocates nationwide who could work on state-level reform. Once the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was enacted, Andy worked tirelessly to help implement it in the states.

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What’s the Formula for Community Resilience?

Aug 1, 2016, 9:22 AM, Posted by Tracy Costigan

A new $10 million grant opportunity, designed to benefit the Gulf of Mexico region, will advance the science and practice of fostering healthy communities that can prepare for, withstand and recover from adverse events—and even thrive afterwards.

A man fishes at dawn.

Few of us have forgotten the searing images of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, especially how the great American City of New Orleans was left in shambles—a testament to longstanding social and economic problems that preceded the storm and a nation that was unprepared after it occurred.

In the decade that followed Katrina—one that included the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history—recovery across the region has varied, but there have been several success stories. For example, New Orleans, that soulful town, overhauled its health and public health systems, improved access to nutritious food and fitness activities, and put new emphasis on issues of equity and poverty. The work is far from done, but the transformation was sufficient to earn a Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in 2013.

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How to Help Students by Helping Their Parents

Jul 27, 2016, 12:00 PM, Posted by Abbey Cofsky, Kristin Schubert

Communities share the specific steps they took to maximize academic success by supporting parents and families.

Teacher holds a student during class.

We’re all well aware that education leads to better jobs and higher income. Just as important, research also links education to reduced risk of illness, increased vitality, longevity and academic success that extends to future generations.

That’s why the situation for schools in Lawrence, Mass., was particularly concerning back in 2010. At the time, more than one out of every four Lawrence kids dropped out of high school. This led the Massachusetts Department of Education to put Lawrence’s schools into receivership by 2012, placing them under new management to safeguard state assets. The state-appointed “receiver,” was granted authority to develop an intervention plan to overhaul the schools through steps you might expect such as expanding the school day and replacing half the districts’ principals.

But the district also took one critical step by acknowledging that a family’s financial stability strongly influences how well children do in school—and whether they drop out.

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To Heal a Community, Build Capacity

Jul 20, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by Laura Porter, Martha Davis

Lessons from Washington State show a culture shift can lead to healthier lives.

Group gathering in front of of a building at night.

About 15 years ago, non-profit and public service providers in Cowlitz County, Wash. were trying to figure out why—despite great planning and programming—there were still problems in the neighborhood that made the most 911 calls. The prevailing wisdom was that the neighborhood was dangerous because it was dark outside people’s homes, and it stayed dark because people liked it that way. It helped conceal criminal activity. But the coordinator for the service collaborative knew she needed to engage with residents and learn what they thought. So to start to figure out what was happening, she went house by house to talk to people.

As those discussions with community residents grew, it became clear that residents saw things differently.

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At the Intersection of Urban Planning and Health in the New York Metro Region

Jul 12, 2016, 4:48 PM, Posted by Mandu Sen

Urban planning plays a role in addressing health challenges in America and can help give everyone the opportunity to live their healthiest lives possible. A new report shows us how.

A man rides his bike through the street.

More perhaps than any place in the world, the New York metropolitan region is known for its urban form—its physical layout and design. From the Manhattan skyline to the neon lights and tourist-packed streets of Times Square to the rolling hills and winding paths of Central Park, New York’s built and natural environment is part of what makes it such a vibrant, dynamic place to live. The distinctive form also has important health impacts. But, as discussed in a new report, State of the Region’s Health: How the New York Metropolitan Region’s Urban Systems Influence Health, these impacts are often poorly understood.

The report, written by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) with support from RWJF, provides an in-depth look at health in the New York metropolitan region, where 23 million people live in cities, suburbs, villages and rural communities stretching from New Haven, Connecticut to Ocean County, New Jersey. It finds that New York region residents live longer than U.S. residents overall, but they are not necessarily healthier.

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Wanted: Creative Research—From Any Field—Revealing What Makes Everyone In America Healthier

Jul 6, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by Claire Gibbons

Researchers: RWJF wants to fund your best ideas, and most rigorous study designs, to help us learn what works to promote the health of everyone in America.

A child looks through a large magnifying glass.

What does it take for Americans to lead healthier lives? Seems like a simple question, but it takes research to get answers we can act on.

Research is how we will discover what happens to resident and community health when a low-income community in Seattle—pocked with aging infrastructure and troubled, publicly subsidized housing—is transformed into one that sports mixed-income housing, new parks and services that support well-being. It’s a way we can measure the value of litigation aimed at forcing school districts in California to comply with state requirements for physical education in schools. Through research, we can pinpoint whether the presence of children in a defendant’s life influences sentencing decisions. And only through research can we further understand how criminal sentences impact the overall health and living arrangements of these children.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is funding these and other studies through its Evidence for Action (E4A) National Program, now in its second year. We want to continue making grants through E4A, which is why we invite you to explore our Call for Proposals (CFP).

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Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Empathetic?

Jun 29, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by Deborah Bae

Virtual reality is proving to be a tool to help build the human capacity to care about the realities of others—something that’s needed to tackle social issues like homelessness.

A man tests out a virtual reality headset. Photo Credit: Maurizio Pesce/ Flickr via CC by 2.0

Today, San Francisco media took the unprecedented step of putting aside competitive interests and devoted an entire day of coverage to the issue of homelessness in the Bay Area. Frustrated at inaction over the city's homeless crisis, local newsmakers have flooded the airwaves and filled pages of newsprint to focus attention on the problem and potential solutions.

Homelessness is not just something San Franciscans are struggling with. On any given night, over 1/2 million people in the U.S.—including children and families—are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homeless.

Tackling tough issues like homelessness requires empathy. Having empathy for those in need is a vital first step toward action. We’ve seen events that enable people to “walk a mile” in the shoes of a homeless person be effective at helping build understanding and compassion for the homeless. But what would it mean if people could walk a virtual mile in another’s shoes? Could the immersive nature of virtual reality help us reach more people and build lasting empathy?

Working with researchers at Stanford University, that’s exactly what we hope to find out.

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Communities Are Using a Powerful Tool to Journey Toward Better Health

Jun 27, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by Kate Konkle

Communities across the United States are using data to help set goals, measure progress and provide better services that will ultimately improve residents' health.

Graphic showing how data can inform health

“Where have we been? Where are we going? How can we get there?” These are the questions facing communities who want to make health a right, not a privilege, for all of their residents. And they can’t answer these questions without one critical tool: data.

As a former community coach with the Roadmaps to Health Action Center, I was a sounding board, devil’s advocate and cheerleader all in one. I was also a data guru, helping communities use numbers to guide decisions and come together around priorities.

Data is a powerful tool in any community’s work to build a Culture of Health. A good place to start looking for data is the County Health Rankings, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin, because it compiles health stats on nearly every county in the nation. Other sources, such as federal, state and local departments of health, education, labor, and parks and recreation also provide useful statistics. In some cases, I advise communities to consider collecting their own data, either because the information they want isn’t already collected, or because existing sources don’t provide the rich level of detail they need about particular populations or issues.

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