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Dr. James Roemmich

How the state of parks increases a community’s well-being

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How the state of parks increases a community’s well-being
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Outdoor parks are great resources and serve many community needs from restoration to recreation. Accordingly, they can play important roles in public health.

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We have collaborated with the Grand Forks Park District to study how the more than 20 parks in Grand Forks are used throughout the year. To date, we have observed some 12,000 park visitors.

We have found that most adults aren’t very active in the green spaces of Grand Forks. This was expected, as each park can be an oasis of natural scenery — green space, trees and small bodies of water creating soothing, restorative settings. Research has shown that spending time in these types of settings can reduce stress and make individuals less reactive to stressors. This may be one reason why Grand Forks’ larger parks and parks with mature trees are visited more often.

We found some features of parks to be especially important in promoting moderate intensity activity. We observed some 2,350 young children engaged in very active play on playgrounds, 1,400 adults walking on trails, more than 1,100 adults engaged in sports and more than 550 adults (mostly men) playing Frisbee golf. This is consistent with our expectation that neighborhood parks are also important for meeting needs for physical activity — the kind that, in addition to walking, provides additional health benefits.

We found Grand Forks parks to be visited most during the spring and, not surprisingly, least during the winter. But the intensity of park visitors’ physical activity was lowest during the lazy days of summer and highest during winter for youth and adults who played ice hockey and moved to keep warm.

We also saw the parks were used for education and learning. We observed elementary school physical education classes being held in the parks and high-school students netting insects during biology lessons along the Greenway path.

While we didn’t focus on programs that occurred at the parks, it is known that organized park-based activity programs can increase the number and physical activity of park users, and reduce the prevalence of obesity among youth.

We noted that Grand Forks parks are very well-maintained. Studies have shown that continuous upgrading of facilities can revitalize a park, increasing its use as well as the physical activity of its youngest users. This can benefit whole families, as young children often come with their parents who also are likely to walk or bicycle to, from and in the park.

It is clear that parks provide opportunities to relax and reflect, to be active and to learn — all important features of healthy living.

Grand Forks is fortunate to have an established system of parks and playgrounds that promote health and active living for everyone. Research has shown that easy access to spacious and well-designed neighborhood parks that include trees and other vegetation, playgrounds, trails, sport courts and fields are likely to promote their public use. We expect our findings to be useful in guiding park design to enhance their value in supporting the social, physical and psychological health of the community.

For information about healthy eating, increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviors, visit www.cnpp.usda.gov.

Roemmich is a supervisory research physiologist/research leader at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center who received his doctorate in exercise physiology at Kent State University. Roemmich’s programs of research focus on behavioral approaches for the prevention and treatment of childhood and adult obesity, and understanding how family, home and neighborhood environments influence physical activity and healthy eating.

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