Sunday, February 21, 2010

Health and the outdoors: exploring the mechanics behind a generallyheld belief: play in the out of doors is a good thing.(RESEARCH UPDATE). USA, LLC

Outdoor play area, originally uploaded by whitechapel cottages.

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SOME STATEMENTS ARE open to interpretation. For instance, the 1961 New York Yankees are the best baseball team of all time. Or, Miles Davis is the hands-down, best-ever jazz trumpeter.

Others, less so. For example: Outdoor recreation contributes to a happy, healthier lifestyle.

On the surface, the truth behind this statement would appear to be quite obvious. Outdoor recreation-hiking, biking, kayaking, running, and so forth-are all components that naturally contribute to a healthier physical specimen.

In his research paper "Outdoor Recreation, Health, and Wellness: Understanding and Enhancing the Relationship," author Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Penn State University and a well-known expert and writer on the topics of leisure time, parks, tourism, and health, examines how being outside in natural surroundings may improve health and how outdoor physical activities benefit participants.

But beyond the basics, Godbey looks at the variables that affect participation in outdoor activities, considering the projected demographic changes that will affect policymaking in this arena. The findings of this literature review, the author posits, point to potential new directions for outdoor recreation policy, as well as new policy questions to be explored.

Heady stuff, to be sure. But it all begins with a few basic tenets of commonly accepted fact.

A Nation Overweight

First and foremost, the physical fitness of children in America has declined while waistlines have ballooned. According to Godbey's research, approximately 8 million U.S. children are overweight; obesity rates have doubled for children ages 6-11, and tripled for adolescents ages 12-19 across the past 20 years. Today, 13 percent of children and 14 percent of adolescents are significantly overweight.

What does this mean? Obesity can increase the risk of bone disease and some cancers later in life and increase the risk of adult-onset, or Type 2, diabetes. In addition, says Godbey, children who are overweight before the age of 8 tend to become overweight adults.

Beyond the generally appalling physical health consequences, children today are losing touch with the natural world. Author Richard Louv's groundbreaking 2005 directive, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, sent this chilling message to parents: In terms of children's free time, green space has been replaced by "screen space"--flatscreen televisions, iPods, video games, and computer monitors.

Good-bye, free play. Hello, Xbox 360.

So severe is this natural-world deficit, says Godbey, that a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that the average American child spends more than six hours each clay in front of an electronic screen.

In this passage from his book, Louv identifies several of the culprits--"the cumulative impact of overdevelopment, multiplying park rules, well-meaning (and usually necessary) environmental regulations, building regulations, community covenants, and fear of litigation"--convincing children that "free-range play" is unwelcome, and that "organized sports on manicured playing fields" is the only acceptable form of outdoor recreation.

Making Necessary Changes

And here's where the really common common-sense comes into play: Children with easy accessibility to recreation facilities and programs--read, public parks and recreation--and more likely to be physically active and in better health.

A no-brainer, right? But, says Godbey, we continue to construct a physical world that inhibits play. Residential subdivisions without sidewalks and ringed with cul-de sacs, a highly litigious and liability-anxious society, schools that seemingly have worked phys-ed and free-play time from their daily schedules.

To wit: According to Godbey's research, less than one half of American children have a playground within walking distance of home. One-third of parents who participated in a recent Gallup poll believe their communities do not have enough playgrounds, and two-thirds believe that using a playground is a deterrent to watching television.

And, Godbey found, the problems don't stop at home. Changes in school policy--supervision, equipment, structured programs, and so forth--are putting a damper on physical activity during the school day. This is particularly true for girls, Godbey suggests.

Getting to the Answer

So, why? Why, when the majority--if not all--of the research points to the fact that most Americans don't get enough of something that is so good for us, can we not seem to fix the problem?

One reason, as Godbey points out: Free play is free. In other words, when kids are running around or shooting hoops, "they are not burning fossil fuel, not anyone's captive audience; they aren't making money for anyone."

And while several factors contribute to the overall decline in levels of physical activity, perhaps the simplest solution in helping to reverse the trend is that of spending more money for parks and recreation.

Relying upon data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Godbey shows that creating and improving recreational spaces can spark a 25 percent increase in those who exercise at least three times per week, and that the closer people live to a bikeway, the more likely they are to use it.

Godbey goes on to cite several other specific pieces of correlating data, including:

Across six cities, adolescent girls who had a higher number of parks less than a mile from home were more likely to achieve higher levels of physical activity than girls who had fewer parks near their homes.

A five-city study found that having a park within walking distance of one's home was the strongest predictor that an older person would use a park.

Adults in New York City, Baltimore, and Forsyth County, N.C., were 28 percent more likely to participate in recreation activities if there were parks and recreation facilities within five miles of home.

Because research reveals that the use of local park and recreation services is more frequent than visits to, say, national parks, Godbey suggests that incorporating outdoor recreation into Americans' daily routines should be a priority strategy. As the research shows, proximity to local parks, playgrounds, and other outdoor recreation resources is crucial in boosting participation rates of physical activity.

In other words, if you provide the facilities anal programs, people overwhelmingly will use them.

The bottom line is that children--and adults--need places where they can be outdoors and physically active on a regular basis, close to home. The equation appears to be fairly simple. If we provide more parks, a more physically active population will likely follow.

And, as the research makes clear, spiraling levels of physical activity is not child's play.

This article was edited by DOUGLAS VAIRA based on the research provided by GEOFFREY GODBEY, a professor emeritus in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Penn State University and a well-known expert and writer on the topics of leisure time, parks, tourism, and health. Vaira is a freelance writer based in Charles Town, West Virginia.

Source Citation
Vaira, Douglas. "Health and the outdoors: exploring the mechanics behind a generally held belief: play in the out of doors is a good thing." Parks & Recreation Oct. 2009: 29+. Academic OneFile. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A210867595

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