Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Turning the Tide in St. Petersburg: The Importance of Exercise and Meal Programs

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Turning the Tide in St. Petersburg: The Importance of Exercise and Meal Programs

Article excerpt

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With 137 parks and 62 playgrounds on 2,300 acres, St. Petersburg residents should be hard pressed not to get all the exercise and activity they could possibly want. The city boasts fitness trails, public gardens, a wide array of athletic programs, swimming pools, and close to 100 recreation classes. Yet, for a variety of reasons common to much of the country, obesity among its populace, especially children and youth, challenges the city. It comes down to having a nutritious diet and adequate amounts of exercise, both of which are lacking, say the professionals in the city's parks and recreation department. Economic issues have made it difficult for many families to afford the healthy but often expensive foods for meals, not to mention the frequent difficulty of transportation logistics. A number of other forces are making it difficult for kids to get adequate exercise, much of it due to inactive down times in organized sports and the gap in non-school athletic opportunities between middle school and adulthood. As Kerry M. Bittner, administration support coordinator for the city's parks and recreation department explains, the key to developing active young people is keeping them engaged through those critical years. Bittner says it's important to emphasize education programs, especially on health and wellness, and "then hit them with the educational piece about fitness, and we don't lose them."

Polly Brannon, special events supervisor for the parks and recreation department, cites the typical phenomenon of a kid playing youth soccer and then stopping in high school, because they might not excel enough at it to qualify for interscholastic play. "Our youth leagues take those kids and make the sport recreational--yet physical and competitive. It is so, so popular."

Brannon also cites recent research concluding that for all their good intentions, organized sports, such as soccer, actually offer much less pure exercise because of on-field administrative duties and the nature of standing around so much during games and practice.

Bittner and Brannon don't see St. Petersburg as much different from the rest of the country in terms of decreasing physical activity and rising obesity levels. The wealth of research and statistics documenting and results have brought reality home in the last several years. "We obviously have jumped on the bandwagon in the last two years in offering educational programs and wellness programs within our city," Brannon says. "Even our staff are writing health information into our newsletters."

Both say the city recognizes the need for an integrated approach. The parks department in that time has begun partnering With All Children's Hospital and the Pinellas County Health Department to share information and program knowledge.

Bittner says his department has always been inclined to go above and beyond ba sic federal requirement for menu design for after-school snack programs.

"We basically have our own menu," he says. "We try to build in as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we can. I know USDA regulations require certain things, but when you look at some of those menus, you don't necessarily see lots of fruits and vegetables. So we really had to push in the last five to seven years to change that menu quite a bit and fill it with as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we could. …

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