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Parks and recreation play key role in promoting healthy living, study finds


Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Laura Payne
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Professor Laura Payne was a co-investigator on a study that confirmed what parks and recreation professionals have long suspected: Nationwide, their agencies are serving as effective partners with community health-care providers in promoting healthy, active lifestyles among residents.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new study co-written by a University of Illinois professor has confirmed what parks and recreation professionals have long suspected: Nationwide, their agencies are serving as effective partners with community health-care providers in promoting healthy, active lifestyles among residents.

The study, commissioned by the National Recreation and Park Association and funded by National Recreation Foundation, found that “health partnerships are well established and well received across most recreation and park organizations, particularly at the local/municipal level.”

Laura Payne, a U. of I. Extension professor with a joint appointment in the department of recreation, sport and tourism's Office of Recreation and Park Resources, is among the study’s co-investigators. The research team also included Andrew Mowen and Geoffrey Godbey, of Pennsylvania State University, and Elizabeth Oresega-Smith, of the University of Delaware.

“With the oncoming crisis with obesity and related issues, health organizations – whether a cardiac rehabilitation center, assisted living center or social services agencies – realized early on that we have a place at the table,” Payne said.

“Parks and recreation is the place people go to work on their lifestyle issues,” Payne said. “We have the parks, the recreation centers and the pools, so we realized how important this connection is.”

However, policymakers and government agencies weren’t necessarily connecting the dots.

“We felt a sense of urgency when we realized that parks and recreation was being overlooked in the ‘Healthy People 2000’ report, a strategic plan created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” Payne said.

“The workplace and schools and clinical providers were recognized as having a role to play, but parks and recreation wasn’t in there.”

As a result of the omission, Payne and her colleagues began talking among themselves about ways to promote the role parks and recreation play in community health, and encourage more such partnerships.

“We had been aware of and had been advocating for inter-agency, multidisciplinary partnerships between and among park districts and health-related providers for a long time. It just made sense,” she said. “We could do more together than apart.”

When the NRPA committed to the development of more programming and partnership initiatives focused on best practices in physical activity, nutrition and community health, Payne said the organization was faced with a lack of baseline knowledge of key partnership themes and issues. As a result, it commissioned the current study of partnership practices.

The NRPA study was based on an online survey of more than 1,200 park and recreation administrators, along with in-depth interviews with 16 recreation and park professionals. Major topics investigated included the prevalence of health partnerships, types of partner organizations, reasons partners participate, and barriers to forming and sustaining such partnerships.

Payne is the lead author of an article on the study’s results, which appears in the September issue of the magazine Parks and Recreation. In it, she notes that 88 percent of respondents reported they partner with an outside agency to promote health.

“On average, respondents reported that their agency was involved in an average of four health partnerships. About two-thirds of those surveyed reported they partner with schools.”

The next most common partners mentioned: public health agencies, such as county and state health departments (65 percent); sports organizations (57 percent); and non-profit health-promotion agencies, such as AARP and American Heart Association (57 percent).

Among the study’s other findings:

General wellness or promotion of physical activity were the primary focuses on health partnerships.

Lack of resources was cited as a major barrier for agencies without health partnerships.

The biggest challenges to forging successful partnerships included lack of stakeholder buy-in, limited funding support, unclear roles and responsibilities, lack of commitment and follow-through, communication and turf issues.

Key assets contributed by parks and recreation agencies were facility management and public access.

Organizations with trails and/or greenways, multi-purpose recreation centers, outdoor courts and outdoor aquatic facilities were more likely to be health partnership participants.

Non-profit organizations were more likely than state/federal parks and forest agencies to indicate that health partnerships improved their image and enhanced funding opportunities.

Organizations with larger operating budgets and populations were more likely to participate in health partnerships.

Payne, who has extensive experience working with rural populations, said that while health partnerships were more common in large urban areas, professionals in rural communities indicated a strong interest in the concept.

“In rural areas, it all comes down to three things: money, volunteers and knowledge. You’ve got to know what to do, have the ability to communicate and plan, and there has to be a way to fuel the funding.”

With respect to the volunteer component, Payne said, the biggest impediment is that small towns naturally have very small volunteer pools.

“A lot of the same people do all the work,” she said. “As a result, organizations have to try to appeal to more people and have a support system.

“Rural communities need a jump start. They need someone who can put organizations in touch with people who can help.”

In addition to reporting on existing health partnerships, the study’s authors suggested strategies for park and recreation agencies that want to create new relationships and/or enhance what they’re doing now.

Among those strategies:

Establish a sense of rapport and team among members of the partnership.

Clarify shared goals and values.

Implement a structure for meetings and communications.

Conduct an ongoing partnership evaluation.

Develop role descriptions early on for all players involved in the partnership.