Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Providing More for Older Adults: Older Adults Are Discovering a New Health Resource-Their Local Parks

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Providing More for Older Adults: Older Adults Are Discovering a New Health Resource-Their Local Parks

Article excerpt

The health value of local parks to older adults is increasingly being recognized. Those outside our field are quickly identifying parks as a strategic resource in the war against physical inactivity. While parks contribute to public health in numerous ways, such as stress reduction, it is their role in getting people moving that is capturing the imagination of those concerned with older adults' health.

The management of local parks will increasingly be planned, programmed and managed in ways that increase physical activity among those age 50 and older. Consider the following dramatic and interrelated trends:

* The percentage of older adults in the U.S. population will increase dramatically. In less than five years, the majority of the U.S. population will be age 45 or older. Twenty percent of the population will be 65 or older in less than 25 years. In less than 15 years, one out of five workers will be 55 and older. Public spending for health care of older adults is dramatically higher than for the population as a whole--from seven to 10 times higher.

* Sedentary lifestyles are increasing. People move their bodies less at work, doing housework and personal care and during their leisure. Only two percent of workers, for example, travel to and from work by walking. It has been estimated that more people die each year from being sedentary (lack of regular physical activity) than from alcohol, gun, motor vehicle, illicit drug and sexually transmitted disease causes combined.

* Older adults are likely to use local parks frequently more than younger residents and the vast majority of older Americans have a park within walking distance of their home. Medicare is already running at a deficit and will require huge sources of revenue that most economists believe can't be raised to remain solvent at current spending levels. Older adults will have more responsibility for their own health care returned to them.

Given these considerations, leisure is being recognized as the part of life in which physical activity can be increased. Studies have begun to demonstrate that physical activity during leisure is positively related to health, while physical activity during work is often negatively related to health. Also, being physically active outdoors appears to be more beneficial than physical activity done indoors. Some of these benefits include:

* Relieves tension and stress

* Provides enjoyment and fun

* Stimulates the mind

* Helps maintain stable weight, and controls appetite

* Improves muscle tone, strength and flexibility

* Lowers blood pressure

* Relieves insomnia

* Improves self-esteem and confidence

* Increases "good" (HDL) cholesterol

In response to these trends, many changes are taking place in how local parks are being used to increase physical activity among older adults. One exciting new concept is for parks to create a series of physical activity stations placed on trails or walking paths. Since walking is the most common form of physical activity among older adults, it makes sense to add additional exercise value and fun to trails for older adults.

The stations of a fitness trail can be spread out on a walking path or trail, clustered in groups at various points or grouped at one end of the trail. Stations can include: welcome, lower body warm-up, bench stepper, torso stability, upper body warm-up, standing pushup, forearm rolls, upper body stretch and strengthen, lower body stretch and balance. With most manufacturers of these stations, the equipment can be used at two levels of exertion and many allow the user to customize.

Additional Research

In addition to practical advances in recreation for older adults, research about this age group is needed to increase funding for them within communities. Active Living Research (ALR) is a program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that started in 2001, and is investigating policies and environments to support active communities. …

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