A Study of Leisure Time Physical Activity in Public Parks in Diverse Communities

    • February 6, 2008

The Problem: Parks can play an important role in any neighborhood as a place for leisure-time physical activity. But few studies have examined how parks influence physical activity in minority communities, where physical activity levels are low. What specific park characteristics support physical activity in neighborhoods where there is both ethnic and socioeconomic diversity? How do individuals from these diverse neighborhoods use existing parks?

RWJF Approach: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research (ALR) program stimulates and supports research to examine environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Funded researchers use a transdisciplinary approach-one that encourages experts from various disciplines to collaborate on identifying environmental factors and policies that are related to physical activity.

Grantee Background: Myron F. Floyd, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Unlike many researchers who study physical activity and the environment, Floyd approaches the topic from a park management perspective. "I never studied or had any special interest in physical activity and public health," he says. "My focus was primarily on the use of parks; what people did in their leisure time; and how race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status affect access to parks, park use patterns, and leisure behavior. We had been looking at why people use parks or why they don't—from the perspective of providing satisfying experiences and psychological benefits, such as being with family and friends. We also wanted to know whether park benefits were equally available to diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups. My involvement in researching physical activity and parks began with the Active Living Research call for proposals and the need for evidence on how parks contribute to physical activity."

The Project: Floyd and colleagues examined physical activity in 10 parks in Tampa, Fla., and 18 parks in Chicago. Under this study, Physical Environmental Factors and Their Association with Leisure-time Physical Activity in Public Parks, they identified parks located in neighborhoods with high concentrations of non-Hispanic White, African-American and Hispanic residents, and surrounded by both low- and high-income census tracts.

A team of graduate students observed people using parks from Friday to Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. during months when the average daytime temperature was 75 degrees.

Using validated and reliable observation procedures, Floyd and a team of researchers observed 9,454 park users within predetermined park areas: playgrounds, courts (tennis, handball, basketball), picnic areas, sports and athletic fields, and open spaces. Researchers coded each observed activity as sedentary, moderate (walking) or vigorous. The study will be completed in 2009.

Results: Preliminary results show a few distinct patterns. As Floyd writes in a preliminary, unpublished report, "70 percent of park users in Tampa and 51 percent [in] Chicago... were observed engaged in sedentary behavior. In both cities, children were more likely than adults to be observed in walking or vigorous activity. In Tampa, parks located in neighborhoods with the most Hispanic residents were associated with greatest levels of activity. In Chicago, parks in neighborhoods with highest concentration of African Americans showed the most activity."

At first, Floyd was surprised by the observation that park users engage in so much sedentary behavior. There was extensive passive use. For example, picnics, sitting and talking, or just relaxing were common. But he noted, "Parks have many benefits, not just physical activity but being outdoors, relaxing, stress release, nature enjoyment, being with your family. All of these are important benefits and contribute to personal and social well-being."

Two things stood out to Floyd:

  • The high park activity levels in Chicago's African-American neighborhoods, since this finding refutes conventional wisdom that Whites and Hispanics are more active.
  • Children in parks were more active than adults. "That's a good sign. At the same time, it seems that some of the activity areas [such as soccer fields] were dominated by adults." The pattern, he says, "raises the question of how are parks being managed? What types of programs are being provided for different ages?"

Floyd says that examining parks from the perspective of physical activity levels represents an exciting new field of research and "an emerging field that has the potential to have a significant impact on very important social issues and public health issues."

"I am learning a new field with new tools for research and new theoretical approaches," he says. "And I'm meeting new people and forming new partnerships—definitely."

RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research (ALR) is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, design of the built environment and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday lifestyles for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused increasingly on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities where childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.

ALR research teams are required to be transdisciplinary. ALR researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science).

"In addition to building an evidence base for physical activity, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and a diverse network of active living researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

ALR seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks, or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it.

"The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity," says Orleans. "Increasing numbers of urban planners now recognize that community design is critical for population health."