Five-City Survey Reveals Why Older Adults Visit a Park for Recreation (or Don't); Could Lead to Policy Changes

Examining the relationship of local government recreation and park services to the health of older adults

A multisite research team, led by a researcher from the Pennsylvania State University's College of Health and Human Development, examined the factors that encourage older adults to use local parks and recreational services and what policy changes might be made to promote park use among older adults to increase their physical activity.

Project staff members worked with community parks and recreation agencies from five cities. They fielded a survey and conducted focus groups of adults over 50 who use local parks and recreation services and those who do not. They also conducted focus groups with representatives of local agencies concerned with the health and well-being of older adults.

Key Findings

From the survey:

  • Having a park within walking distance from one's home was the strongest predictor that an older person would use a park.
  • Survey respondents report the following as the top three benefits of using park and recreation facilities (ranked in order of frequency):
    • Exercise.
    • Enjoyment.
    • Improving physical health.
  • Individuals who meet the physical activity levels recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported significantly higher friend-based exercise social support and higher self-efficacy than individuals who do not meet the recommendation of participating in moderate activity (greater than 3 METS at least 5 days per week). MET stands for metabolic equivalent; one MET is the amount of energy used when sitting quietly.

From the focus groups:

  • Older park users fear crowding and trails and pathways that supported multiple uses (for example, children on bikes/skates/skateboards).
  • People who do not use parks and recreation services report several constraints that prevent them from doing so, including: lack of time, living on a fixed income and poor health.
  • Representatives of agencies concerned with health and well-being of older adults believe that since older people enjoy parks and recreation services, they might be more willing to use them for physical activity than formal physical rehabilitation or exercise programs.

Funding

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported this unsolicited research project with a $316,128 grant to the Pennsylvania State University College of Health and Human Development from April 2002 through December 2004.

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