Healthy Children, Healthy Communities: Schools, Parks, Recreation, and Sustainable Regional Planning

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

If current trends in obesity, inactivity, and disease continue, today's youth will be the first generation in this nation's history to face a shorter life expectancy than their parents. (1) Physical inactivity and poor nutrition habits are second only to tobacco use as a leading cause of preventable deaths each year and are responsible for an estimated 400,000 deaths annually. (2) Adult onset diabetes now increasingly strikes children at younger and younger ages. As a result, children are more likely to suffer long range effects including death, loss of limbs, and blindness. This health crisis currently costs the U.S. over $100 billion each year.

All communities suffer from obesity and inactivity, but communities of color and low income communities suffer first and worst. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately denied the benefits of safe open spaces for physical activity in parks and schools, and disproportionately suffer from obesity related diseases. Urban areas like Los Angeles, for example, systemically fail to provide adequate open space for recreation in parks and schools, particularly in the inner city. (3)

The obesity and inactivity crisis is not just the result of individual eating or exercise habits. Advocates from different disciplines must shift from a primary focus on personal responsibility and individual choice to acknowledge the role of the environment and public policy in shaping lifestyles and activity patterns. (4) Children, adolescents, and adults cannot become more physically active and fit if they do not have accessible, safe, and affordable opportunities to be active. (5)

"[S]chools offer an almost population wide setting for promoting physical activities to young people, primarily through classroom curricula for physical education and health education." (6) Progressive park and recreation officials recognize the potential for promoting human health and wellness through physical activity as part of their mission. (7) Yet physical education is being squeezed out of the school day, and park and recreation budgets are among the first cut during fiscal crises.

Every public official from the President of the United States and down must address the relationship between physical activity, obesity, and disease. President John F. Kennedy launched the "(50) Mile Hike" Campaign, which many people still recall as a hallmark of his administration. (8) The nation's President, each of our governors, mayors, school board members, school superintendents, park and recreation professionals, law enforcement leaders, elected officials, and urban planners should focus on improving human health through active recreation and open space.

The Center for Law in the Public Interest (the "Center") advocates for a comprehensive approach to improve human health and community that includes: (9) 1) open space for recreation in parks, school yards, beaches, and wilderness areas including national forests and parks while ensuring the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes; 2) the design and joint use of parks and schools to make optimal use of land and public resources; 3) physical education for every student every day in every school; 4) educational programs in schools and parks to instill the lifelong values of physical fitness and healthy nutrition; 5) public education campaigns to articulate the need for active recreation spaces in schools, parks, beaches, and wilderness areas as a matter of human health, educational reform, and sustainable regional planning; 6) healthier alternatives to junk foods in vending machines and cafeterias in schools and parks, as well as easy access to drinking water; 7) diversifying access to and support for wilderness areas including national forests and parks; and 8) federal funding and programs for active recreation in parks, schools, and wilderness areas. (10)

We are fighting for our children's lives. …