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Wellness in the 21st Century

The Health Benefits of Parks and Recreation

by Micheal A. Kanters, Ph.D.

The continuing erosion of tax support for park and recreation services at all levels of government has confused the focus and rationale for recreation services.

In his book, Doing More with Less, J.L. Crompton noted that "the role of the public recreation and park manager has changed from that of being an administrator primarily concerned with the allocation of government funding to that of an entrepreneur who operates in the public sector with minimal tax support" (4),

Greater attention is being directed at developing potential income-producing events and services and at identifying the variety of benefits of existing events and services. Consequently, some practitioners have lost sight of the basic foundations and benefits that have always driven the field of recreation. Part of the problem is that many recreation practitioners are too narrow in their view of recreation's potential benefits to our communities (10).

We need to broaden this view and demonstrate the variety of benefits recreation services contribute to our communities.

Several studies have examined the economic benefits of recreation services and several good arguments have been presented for the important role that recreation and parks play in improving the quality of life in our communities.

A more recent focus has been on the health benefits of parks and recreation.

The association of recreation services with individual and community health has been overlooked in the past for two reasons: 1) the definition of health has historically been very narrow, and 2) researchers have not looked beyond the direct benefits of recreation participation. Health has traditionally been examined in terms of the absence of disease, vitality (being able to function with vigor), or in terms of longevity (living to be at least 75 years of age).

In their book, Healthy for Life, authors Williams and Knight say health is much more than this. It consists of an individuals ability to attain well-being in five areas:

1. Physical Health —The ability to carry out daily tasks, develop cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength and agility, and maintain proper nutrition and body fat

2. Mental or Psychological Health —The process of using your mind to create a greater understanding and appreciation of yourself, others and your environment, involving the ability to learn and to think rationally.

3. Emotional Health — Our feelings and thoughts. An awareness and acceptance of our own feelings and the feelings of others. Concepts include self-esteem, love, and empathy.

4. Social Health — Our ability to interact with other individuals and social environments. The ability to develop and maintain intimacy with specific others and respect and tolerate those with different opinions and beliefs.

5. Spiritual Health — Trust, integrity, and ethics. The process of creating and discovering meaning and purpose in life.

Illinois Parks & Recreation • January/February 1996 • 27

When health is viewed from this broader perspective we can see that recreation participation contributes, in some way, to all aspects of health thereby strengthening its relative importance as a community service.

The Benefits of Recreation on the Components of Health

Inactivity is the most significant risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Friendships generated through recreation are closer than those generated in other life situations like work.

Recreation's contribution to physical health is well recognized. Traditionally, recreation and leisure were viewed as one's opportunity to engage in physical activity. Consequently, recreation services were designed to provide opportunities for physical activity. From a benefits perspective this approach can have a significant impact on the health of a community.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, inactivity is the most significant risk factor for coronary heart disease. Substantial evidence supports the notion that physical activity can increase average life expectancy by as much as two years (9). However, when determining where to make public expenditures, decision makers cannot focus simply on the increase in average life expectancy of the public.

Benefits and cost savings have to be put in terms of today's dollar and weighed against health care costs and potential cost savings. To this end, researchers examined the relative cost savings of physical activity when compared with other health care strategies (3). They found that physical activity as a health promotion strategy has greater potential savings at both the individual and the community levels. They reported that being active saves almost twice as much per person as being a non-smoker. In most communities there are approximately 1.5 times as many inactive people as there are smokers (10). Thus, focusing on increasing the activity levels of constituents rather than reducing smoking habits (which has a negative economic impact on a community) can result in greater cost savings to the community.

The contribution of recreation to psychological and emotional health is dependent on whether the individual perceives the activity as freely chosen and an end in itself. Empirical research indicates that individuals who are in control of their leisure lives and experiences and feel engaged in and committed to recreation activities are psychologically healthier than those who are not in control, feel detached and uncommitted (6). From this perspective recreation services play a very important role.

Recent studies show that we are working longer and harder to sustain our standard of living (11). In addition, people are reporting greater feelings of being rushed and not being able to take advantage of their leisure opportunities (12). Consequently, as a population we are losing control and feeling detached.

Recreation practitioners have to be proactive and creative in promoting ways to help individuals regain control of their leisure lives. Traditional programs and services should be re-examined and modified to meet the needs of the "rushed" and "stressed-out" generation.

Recreation's contribution to social health, like physical health, is well recognized. Several studies have shown that people engage in recreation activities specifically for social reasons. Some argue that friendships generated through recreation are closer than those generated in other life situations like work. Choosing a companion in free time or recreation reflects a greater degree of sincerity and has the potential to result in closer relationships (2):

"by engaging in some of the many leisure pursuits that are conducive to social interaction, people are more likely to make friends and develop closer friendships. To the extent that people become embedded in social networks they are more likely to perceive that, in times of crises, they will be supported." (2)

The recreation practitioner, by providing a wide range of opportunities for social interaction, can have a significant impact on the social health of their community.

Spiritual health in a community is often confused with the strength and variety of its religious organizations. Spiritual health, however, extends well beyond an individual's level of commitment to church. Recreation's contribution to spiritual health is best exemplified in the development and provision of parks and open spaces.

It is interesting to note that 100 years ago parks were designed not to provide opportunities for play and social interaction. They were passive and serene places where activities were limited to walking, riding one's carriage, botanical appreciation and bird watching (8). It is hard to imagine these activities taking place in a modern urban park today. However, the more opportunities there are for individuals to escape the congestion and rush of their daily lives, the more likely it is for them to achieve a level of spiritual health. To this end, a city's plan for parks and open spaces should include natural areas as well as developed parks.

In addition, recreation practitioners must recognized that simply providing opportunities for interaction with the natural environment is not enough. If one person uses a city's public recreation area for its serene, quiet, private and "spiritual" qualities, it is logical to assume that hundreds of other people will do

28 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • January/February 1996

the same thing. Eventually, the city's natural area will have all the noise and congestion that people were trying to escape.

Recreation and Stress Management

Stress is clearly the buzzword of the '90s, but more important, it is also the disease of the '90s. Some researchers consider stress to be a primary enemy of overall health and a major contributor to disease (1). This statement is only partially correct. Stress is neither positive or negative. How people deal with or react to what they perceive as stress is what determines its effect on their lives. Only when an individual responds in a negative way to a stressful event does it become detrimental to their health.

Two factors, strongly associated with recreation participation, appear to have a significant impact on whether an individual perceives a stressful event as positive or negative: social support and self-determination or self-control. For example, mortality is three times higher in individuals with few close relationships. Illness is more common with people who feel locked in unfulfilling marriages, and AIDS patients with hearty psyches seem better able to withstand the ravages of their disease (1).

It has already been demonstrated that recreation contributes to an individual's social health and promotes and maintains social support. It has also been argued that recreation environments provide the opportunity for a more secure and supportive social network than other life situations (2). Recreation experiences also provide opportunities and encourage the development of an attitude that says: I can start something, I can keep doing it, and I can be good at it.

Through these successes we gain control over some aspect of our lives and view ourselves as worthwhile. People with this personality disposition interpret stressful events in a less negative and sometimes in a positive way (2).

Recreation practitioners can play an important role in helping people to manage the stress in their lives and subsequently have a profound effect on the health of their community. By providing continuing opportunities for social interaction and development, and by helping individuals to realize their potential and feel good about themselves, the recreation services in a community can play an important role in health promotion and health maintenance.

How Can You Promote Health and Wellness in Your Community?

  • Continue to offer a diversity of active recreation opportunities. If constituents have a large repertoire of programs, facilities and services to choose from, they are more likely to identify an interest area and participate.

  • Include constituents in the planning process to promote freedom of choice and commitment. When participants are encouraged to have input at the planning stages, they develop a sense of "ownership" in the programs and services, which translates to a greater level of commitment.

  • Continue to offer recreational opportunities that promote and maintain social interaction and skill development. Social networks may represent one of the strongest links to disease prevention and community health.

  • Maintain and plan for open spaces and natural environments and be restrictive about the amount and type of use. People need opportunities to be by themselves to contemplate. As cities become more congested and work schedules more demanding, this need is intensified. The challenge is to provide opportunities for interaction with the natural environment without destroying it.

  • Recruit a small group of colleagues—a community action team—to help develop a vision for how your department can contribute to the health and wellness of your community. Your start-up group may include people from other human services departments or organizations who work closely with you.

  • Invite a wide range of potential working partners to get involved. Identify how you think health and wellness relate to other community issues and identify situations that are "win-win" solutions for both partners. Possible partners include environmental groups, tourist groups, the Chamber of Commerce, hospitals, unions, the media, a real estate association, spiritual communities and libraries.

Recreation and park services have always been an important part of community life. It is difficult to imagine a community without them. We, however, cannot afford to be complacent and rely on the inherent value of these services. Clearly, an individual's leisure lifestyle has a significant impact on their health and wellness and this puts the recreation profession in a position of greater importance in the community.

As recreation practitioners we must continue to adapt our services to a changing population and political climate. A clear perspective on the potential benefits and how to achieve them will prepare us for this difficult task.

Michael A. Kanters, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada.


(1) Anspaugh, D.J., Hamrick, M.H., and Rosato, F.D. 1991. Concepts and Applications of Wellness. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Year Book.

(2) Coleman. D., and Iso-Ahola. S.E. 1993. "Leisure and Health: The Role of Social Support and Self-determination." Journal of Leisure Research, 25(2):111-128.

(3) Craig, C.L., Russell, S. and Cameron, C. 1994. Benefits and Impact of Physical Activity for Ontario: Physical Activity Intervention Framework Report on Issues One and Three. Toronto: Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation.

(4) Crompton, J.L. 1987. Doing More with Less. State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

(5) Hardin, G. 1968. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science. 162:1243-1248.

(6) Iso-Ahola, S.E., and Weissinger, E. 1984. "Leisure and Well- being: Is there a Connection." Parks and Recreation, 19(6):40- 44.

(7) Kelly, J.R. 1996. Leisure. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

(8) McFarland. E.M. 1970. The Development of Public Recreation in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Parks/Recreation Association.

(9) Paffenbarger, R.S., Jr., Hyde, M.A., and Wing, A.L. 1986. "Physical Activity, All Cause Mortality, and Longevity of College Alumni." New England Journal of Medicine, 314:605-613.

(10) Parks and Recreation Federation of Ontario, The. 1992. The Benefits of Parks and Recreation. Toronto, ON: The Parks and Recreation Federation of Ontario.

(11) Searle, M.S., and Brayley, R.E. 1993. Leisure Services in Canada: An Introduction. State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

(12) Shaw, S. 1990. "Where Has All the Leisure Gone? The Distribution and Redistribution of Leisure in B. Smale (Ed.)." Proceedings from the Sixth Canadian Congress on Leisure Research. Waterloo, ON: University of Waterloo Press.

(13) Williams, B.K., and Knight, S.M. 1995. Healthy for Life. Pacific Grove, CA: Books/Cole Publishing Co.

Illinois Parks & Recreation • January/February 1996 • 29

Some Revealing Statistics from Healthy People 2000

Released in 1990 by the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, Healthy People 2000 offers goals for what can be achieved for the nation's health by the end of this decade. Input was also gathered from a national consortium including the principal health officials of the 50 states and representatives of more than 300 professional and voluntary national membership organizations

Healthy People 2000 presents three broad goals for the health of the nation: 1) to increase the span of healthy life for Americans, 2) to reduce health disparities among Americans. and 3) to achieve access to preventive services for all Americans.

What follows are some revealing statistics from the 1995 progress report on the program entitled "The Health of the Nation: Highlights of the Healthy People 2000 Goals and Progress Report."

Of the 2.1 million deaths in the United States in 1992, one-third were attributable to heart disease and one-fourth to cancers. HlV infection became the tenth leading cause of death in this country in 1990, and in 1992 was the eighth leading cause.

But when one looks beyond the vital statistics records and examines the causes underlying premature deaths, the real benefits of behavior changes, risk-reduction strategies and clinical preventive services become evident.

  • The elimination of tobacco use alone, either through the prevention of its initial use or through cessation of its current use, could prevent more than 400,000 deaths annually from cancer, heart and lung diseases, and stroke.

  • Better dietary and exercise patterns can contribute significantly to reducing conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, and could prevent 300,000 deaths.

  • The prevention of underage drinking and excess alcohol consumption could prevent nearly 100,000 deaths, particularly in reducing deaths from motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and other alcohol-related injury deaths.

  • Most injuries, which account for the largest number of deaths among young Americans, can be prevented through safety measures at worksites, at home, in recreational settings, in communities, and on roadways. Improved worker training and safety programs could reduce occupational injuries and diseases, improve productivity, and lower medical costs.

  • Immunizations could prevent many infectious childhood diseases and prevent serious, sometimes fatal diseases among adults. It is estimated that about 63,000 of 90,000 deaths attributable to microbial agents each year could be prevented through immunizations.

  • Violent acts with firearms—murder, suicide, and accidental discharge—have emerged as a leading threat to Americans. Firearms now account for about 35,000 deaths each year. Ensuring that weapons are kept out of the hands of children and adolescents could reduce the tragedies of accidental discharge and suicides. Addressing the use of guns by adolescents and young adults in homicides is an imperative of the public health agenda.

For more information about Healthy People 2000, contact the Illinois Department of Public Health, Division of Health Promotion, 535 West Jefferson, Springfield. IL 62761,217/782- 3300.

30 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • January/February 1996

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