Category: In the News

ACSM American Fitness Index and Anthem Foundation

Partnership Between American Fitness Index and Anthem Foundation is Twelve Years Strong

The Anthem Foundation is embedded in communities across the country where it supports programs that build awareness about the importance of active lifestyles and healthy behaviors. One of the many ways we are helping to increase awareness and improve overall health is through our partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Since 2006, Anthem Foundation has granted over $1.2M to ACSM as a founding partner in an effort to establish the American Fitness Index, a tool and resource for community stakeholders to address conditions in the environments that negatively affect a person’s overall health and identifies to create healthier, more active communities.

For the second year in a row, Arlington, VA received the title of ‘Fittest City’ in America in the 2019 American Fitness Index rankings. The findings of the 2019 Fitness Index are not only a great indicator of how well communities are encouraging fitness among their residents, but also reveal how social, economic and physical conditions of health within communities directly impact the health and fitness levels of America’s largest cities.

According to Healthy People 2020, a science-based initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly everyone is impacted by conditions in the environment that negatively affect a wide range of health, functioning, quality of life outcomes and risks in one way or another. A way to look at the health of individuals and our communities starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. By taking a deeper look into these areas, we can understand why some Americans are healthier than others, and focus on interactions and relations to address why other Americans are not as healthy, and come up with opportunities and solutions on how to improve the problematic areas.

Part of our ongoing strategy at the Anthem Foundation is to create meaningful partnerships with organizations, targeting specific, preventable health concerns and addressing the conditions in our environments’ social determinants that can negatively impact them. Together with the ASCM and the Fitness Index, we can continue to look toward a brighter future by providing the necessary tools and resources to benefit people of all ages and backgrounds within our communities.

 

Author: Stephen Friedhoff, MD, Chief Clinical Officer, Anthem, Inc.

Changes in the 2019 ACSM American Fitness Index: What Impact Will They Have?

Since the creation of the ACSM American Fitness Index®, the data team constantly looks for ways to improve the rankings. Also, as data sources change the information they gather, we must make changes in the indicators that are used. Both improvements and data source changes took effect as we prepared the 2019 Fitness Index rankings.

The data team worked closely with the experts on the Fitness Index Advisory Board to add four new measures to make the Fitness Index more complete:

  • Complete Streets policy
  • Pedestrian fatality rate
  • Bike Score®
  • Air quality index

These new indicators reflect the importance of policy and built environment in supporting active living that will lead to improved personal health outcomes. For example, cities that successfully implement Complete Streets policies can reduce pedestrian fatalities. Likewise, cities with high Bike Scores help to ensure bicyclists are safe and comfortable riding for transportation and recreation, which improves physical and mental health. While air quality is not often thought of in relation to physical activity, poor air quality has been shown to discourage physically active lifestyles, especially among people with respiratory limitations like asthma or COPD.

The data team also removed three indicators to help balance the Fitness Index and removed one indicator that no longer had a reliable data source:

  • Parkland as percentage of city
  • Acres of parkland/1,000 residents
  • Dog parks/100,000 residents
  • Percentage of residents getting 7+ hours of sleep/day

The three park-related indicators were removed to focus on the built environment characteristics that have a measurable effect on physical activity behaviors and health outcomes. The Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System stopped regularly asking how much sleep people got on average; as a result, the sleep measure was removed from the list of indicators.

The data team also made some adjustments in the placement and weight applied to a few indicators to improve balance and consistency. Even with these changes, the 2019 Fitness Index includes the same number of indicators as were used in 2018 (33), and most of the indicators did not change.

The data team and Fitness Index Advisory Board do not make decisions about changes in the Fitness Index lightly, because cities need to know if their level of “fitness” is getting better from year to year. A lot of discussion and debate occurs among our expert advisors whenever changes are considered. The experts must be convinced that the changes follow current scientific thinking and will make the Fitness Index better; however, we also realize substantial changes cause problems when comparing rankings and scores over time.

With these changes, you might be wondering, “How do these changes impact my city’s score and ranking for 2019?” We believe that the 2019 Fitness Index is a more accurate and fair measure of your city’s fitness, which is a really good thing. However, when you compare the rankings and scores in 2019 to those reported in 2018, part of the shift may be due to the changes in the methods. For example, cities that have invested in making their streets and neighborhoods safer for walking and biking may see a better ranking in 2019 compared to last year, while cities that have larger and more parks may see a drop in the rankings due to these changes.

Advice for interpreting your city’s rank and scores for 2019

Although it is a natural inclination, please don’t compare the overall ranking and scores to those of previous years. Part of the change in rankings could be due to the updates that were made this year. Instead, look at where your city falls generally in relation to the other cities on the list. Is your city in the top 25, in the bottom 25 or somewhere in the middle?

What you also can and should do, is compare your city’s individual indicators from 2018 to 2019 to see which ones improved. After all, the goal of the Fitness Index is to see if your city’s residents are getting healthier and if there have been improvements in your city’s infrastructure to encourage healthy behaviors.

As always, our team here at the American College of Sports Medicine supports and applauds your efforts to become more fit and healthy! We believe the 2019 Fitness Index rankings can help inform decisions that will make your city and its residents healthier.

The 2019 American Fitness Index rankings will be released on May 14, 2019. 

Sign up to get exclusive insights into the report on the day of the release.

 

Author: Terrell W. Zollinger, Dr.P.H, MSPH

From 50 to 100: Lessons Learned from the Expansion of the American Fitness Index

Two criticisms of the first decade of the ACSM American Fitness Index®and its annual report were that it was limited to only the 50 most populated cities in the USA and that the entire metropolitan area was counted among the data. These two observations had some merit. Cities protested that a certain suburb was not really a suburb (but based on the federal government definition of Metropolitan Statistical Area it was) and smaller cities like Arlington, Virginia and Madison, Wisconsin said “what about me?” The original approach to the rankings provided important and valuable general messages but limited the ability to provide targeted assistance to city and community leaders.

That all changed when the 2018 Fitness Index was released. The number of cities reported on grew to the top 100 largest cities based on population, and the definition of “city” was limited to the city limits. The updated approach provides city leaders with the local data that they need to make changes. The data are more in line with governing structures within a city and acknowledge the differences in health behaviors and community-level infrastructure between the city and surrounding suburban areas. The expanded rankings also provide a more inclusive approach by adding cities in states that weren’t previously represented.

With this new definition of city and the inclusion of the top 100, there are still opportunities for the Fitness Index to consider with future updates. For example, in my own hometown of Atlanta (ranked #20 in 2018), the reported population is 473,000 although there are three times that number working within the city limits each day (don’t try driving a car during rush hour!).

Some people might say that the Fitness Index should include the “near” suburbs. This idea may have merit, but the Fitness Index faces challenges with every update. For example, there is not a standardized approach for defining “near” suburbs. Absent of any way to standardize that approach for all cities (and to make fair comparisons), the definition of city was established for the 2018 report. Additionally, changes made to the Fitness Index must have reliable, regularly updated data sources. Currently there are limited data sets that include “near” suburbs.

The methodology for the 2019 rankings remains the same as was used in 2018. There are still 33 indicators divided almost equally between personal health indicators (health behaviors and health outcomes) and community/environmental indicators (built environment, recreational facilities, policy and funding). The city definition has not changed since 2018.

Effect on the rankings

Interestingly, while direct comparisons cannot be made between rankings for MSAs and the city proper, the 2018 rankings found that most cities ranked similar to their MSA ranking from 2017. The 2018 rankings indicate that for MSAs ranked high in the 2017 Fitness Index, the central cities of those MSAs also ranked high in the 2018 rankings. The 2017 rankings for MSAs in #1 Minneapolis, #2 Washington, D.C. and #3 San Francisco remained highly ranked after the 2018 expansion.

A similar pattern appeared in low ranking MSAs and their central cities. The cities ranked toward the bottom of the 2017 Fitness Index when 50 MSAs were reported included #48 Indianapolis, #49 Oklahoma City and #50 Louisville. In 2018, these cities remained among the lowest ranked cities (#98 Louisville, #99 Indianapolis and #100 Oklahoma City). Although these cities continue to be ranked the lowest among the top 100 most populated cities in the USA, there are some grassroots programs starting to take hold and some success has been achieved.

 

Author: Walt Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM

American Fitness Index: 10+ Years of Improving Community Health

The American College of Sports Medicine launched the American Fitness Index (Fitness Index) in 2008. The Fitness Index ranks the 100 largest cities in the United States according to variables that reflect and affect physical activity, physical fitness, health and quality of life of community members. Public health databases serve to develop the Fitness Index and include such components as: percent of adults exercising in the last 30 days, percent with obesity, percent who live within 10 minutes of a park and percent walking or biking to work. The Fitness Index provides information to civic and public health leaders regarding the “health” of their city and citizens and serves as a baseline or benchmark for cities to aspire and measure progress.

When it comes to changing health behaviors and health outcomes, those efforts that influence policy and environment are the most important levers to pull (think Clean Indoor Air Act). Since implementation of tobacco legislation, we’ve seen the rate of tobacco use decrease by about half, from 30+ percent of adults, to 14 percent of adults. Not surprisingly, the decrease in tobacco use in the United States is paralleled by an observed decrease in cardiovascular disease 507 deaths/100,000 to 273 deaths/100,000 people.

Physical activity and resultant physical fitness have a profound influence on health. The recently released 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans highlight the importance and influence of regular physical activity on health. To have the greatest impact, efforts that aim to promote physical activity in communities should address policy and environment, for example: school physical education requirements, bicycle lanes, public transportation infrastructure and farmers’ markets.

As a result of the Fitness Index, several cities have undergone significant efforts to address community infrastructure and policy with remarkable results!

Let’s take Oklahoma City for example. Under the leadership of their mayor, Mick Cornett, the city collectively lost one million pounds! They made the following changes to achieve these phenomenal outcomes: installed 400 miles of new sidewalks, over 100 miles of new jogging and biking trails, built a downtown park, built all new gyms in all the inner-city grade schools and removed fried foods from the school lunchroom.

We’ve watched other cities make meaningful improvements in their communities and in the health of their populations. It is important to continue these gains in cities, towns and communities across the country. We spend nearly 18 percent of our GDP (gross domestic product) on healthcare. These costs are largely driven by chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, which is most often related to unhealthy diet, insufficient physical activity and subsequent obesity.

Now more than ever, we need the American Fitness Index to help raise awareness and motivate, nudge, maybe even jolt community leaders to address infrastructure, environment and policy that allow community members to live their healthiest lives possible.

Author: Elizabeth Joy, MD, MPH, FACSM

Five Frequently Asked Questions About the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition

In 2008, the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued the federal government’s first-ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (Guidelines) to help Americans understand the types and amounts of physical activity that offer important health benefits. Given the extensive amount of new information available over the past decade, DHHS released the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans on November 12, 2018.

 

#1 How many Americans meet the Physical Activity Guidelines?

In 2017, only about 20% of high school students and 25% of adults reported getting enough physical activity to meet the aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines.

 

#2 How much physical activity do school-aged youth and adults need?

The guidelines for children and adolescents are as follows:

  • It is important to provide young people opportunities and encouragement to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that are enjoyable and that offer variety.
  • Children and adolescents aged six through 17 years should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily:
    • Aerobic: Most of the 60 minutes or more per day should be either moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and should include vigorous-intensity physical activity on at least three days a week.
    • Muscle-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least three days a week.
    • Bone-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least three days a week.

The guidelines for adults are as follows:

  • Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
  • Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
  • Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

See Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition for additional key guidelines for the following populations:

  • Preschool-aged children.
  • Older adults.
  • Women during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
  • Adults with chronic health conditions and adults with disabilities.
  • Safe physical activity.

 

#3 To meet the current Physical Activity Guidelines, do Americans need to be more or less active compared to what was first recommended in 2008?

The new evidence reinforces the amounts and types of physical activity recommended for youth and adults in the 2008 Guidelines. The total amount of physical activity didn’t change in the second edition of the Guidelines. However, unlike the 2008 Guidelines, with the current Guidelines, moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity no longer needs to occur in bouts of at least 10 minutes to count towards meeting the adult aerobic activity guideline.

 

#4 What has changed in this second edition of the Guidelines?

This second edition of the Guidelines reflects the extensive amount of new knowledge gained since the 2008 release of the first edition of the Guidelines. This second edition of the Guidelines discusses the proven benefits of physical activity and outlines the amounts and types of physical activity recommended for different ages and populations. For example, new aspects include discussions of:

  • Immediate and longer-term benefits for how people feel, function and sleep after being physically active.
  • Additional health benefits of physical activity related to brain health, additional cancer sites and fall-related injuries.
  • Further benefits of being active among older adults and people with additional chronic conditions.
  • Risks of sedentary behavior and their relationship with physical activity.
  • Guidance on activity levels for preschool children aged three through five years.
  • Elimination of the requirement for physical activity of adults to occur in bouts of at least 10 minutes.
  • Tested strategies that can be used to get the population more active.

 

#5 Where can I find more information?

Learn more about the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. You can also explore the Move Your Way for interactive tools (like the one below), motivational videos, and helpful tips to make it easier to move more and sit less. Remember, physical activity can make you feel better right away including:

  • Boosting your mood,
  • Sharpening your focus,
  • Reducing your stress, and
  • Improving your sleep.

Author: Kathleen B. Watson, Ph.D. 

2018 Physical Activity Guidelines – How to Meet the Goals in Everyday Activities

The other day I heard a story about a woman who hated to exercise. She wanted nothing of it: going to the gym, sweating, walking on the treadmill. Boring. No way! She’d heard about the latest 2018 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines, but had dismissed them as irrelevant to her life.

Recently, she stumbled onto an article that said the activities she was doing in everyday life counted as exercise and that moving more could actually make her feel better. “Cleaning the house, sweeping the porch, mowing the lawn, and walking my child to school are exercise? Really? I need to learn more!”

Off she went to search the internet. She discovered the Compendium of Physical Activities that listed MET values for hundreds of activities. METs? What are those? After learning that METs are a multiple of energy expended at rest (1 MET), the woman got a paper and pen and went to work. She listed all of her daily activities and how much time she did them each week. Then she separated the activities into light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity categories based on the MET values. Low and behold, she spent a lot of time in moderate activities and even some in vigorous activities. Amazing!

She wondered, how many minutes are ‘enough’? She remembered the 2018 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines and went back to the internet. The guidelines recommended that she should “move more and sit less throughout the day.” Check! She did that.

The guidelines also recommended that she also “do at least 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activities (3.0-5.9 METs) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities (6.0 and higher METs), or a combination of the two intensities each week. Preferably the activities should be aerobic. And every minute counted.” Based on her list of activities and METs, she was close to meeting that goal too. She was on a roll!

The third guideline stopped her in her tracks. They recommended she “do at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all her major muscle groups.” Whoa. She didn’t do any muscle strengthening activities. She had no idea what were her major muscle groups.

Back to the internet for more information.

The woman learned that it’s important to work the major muscle groups: the chest, shoulders, back, biceps and triceps, legs and calves, and stomach. Oh. No way she worked these muscle groups at least two days a week, let alone one day a week.

To get help with where to start, the woman went to a nearby gym and worked with a trainer who showed her exercises to strengthen her muscles. She added these exercises to her schedule twice a week and, she liked it! She was getting stronger, her body was firming up and she liked how she felt during and after her workouts. She was sweating and loving it!

Before she knew it, the woman was looking for ways to get moving intentionally. She dusted off that old bicycle in the garage and took it for a spin. She bought a fitness tracker and took the long way to pick up her child at school. She even signed up for an exercise class to get more minutes of vigorous-intensity activities. Moving more had become a part of her life. Everything she was doing, even the bite-sized amounts of activity, counted toward her activity goals. She felt great, slept better, and had more energy.

The moral to this story is that if we move every day, we are doing positive things for our mental and physical health. The new 2018 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines tell us how much activity we need on a regular basis to improve our health and reduce our risk of chronic diseases. So here’s to an active and healthy 2019 as we aim for every child, adult and senior to reach the goals set in the 2018 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines.

 

Author: Barbara E. Ainsworth

Getting up to speed on Complete Streets: 9 things you should know

Complete Streets. You’ve heard of it, but you’re not exactly sure what it means or how it can benefit your community. Our friends at the National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC) put together a handy Q&A to help understand some of the basics of Complete Streets.

#1 Who is the National Complete Streets Coalition?

The National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, is a non-profit, non-partisan alliance of public interest organizations and transportation professionals committed to the development and implementation of Complete Streets policies and practices.

We believe that the streets of our cities and towns must allow all people, regardless of age, ability, income, race or ethnicity, to safely, comfortably and conveniently access homes, employment centers, schools, shops, health facilities and other destinations by foot, bicycle, public transportation, car or truck. A community’s street network should reflect the current and planned built environments and support overall public and economic health.

#2 What are Complete Streets?

A nationwide movement launched by the Coalition in 2004, Complete Streets means putting people first whenever we plan, design, construct, operate and maintain our street networks.

#3 Who are Complete Streets for?

Complete Streets serve the needs of all people who use the road equitably, particularly the most historically underinvested and underserved communities and the most vulnerable users of our roads, including people walking or biking, older adults and people of color. Transportation choices should be safe, convenient, reliable, affordable, accessible and timely. These options should be available to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, income, gender identity, immigration status, age, ability, languages spoken or level of access to a personal vehicle.

#4 What does it mean to create Complete Streets?

Creating Complete Streets means transportation agencies must change their approach to community roads and think about streets as places for people, not just cars. By adopting a Complete Streets policy, communities direct their transportation planners and engineers to routinely design and operate the entire right of way to ensure all people can safely access the street, regardless of age, ability or mode of transportation. This means that every transportation project will make the street network better and safer for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists—making your town a better place to live. Read more about the benefits of Complete Streets.

#5 What do Complete Streets look like?

There is no singular design prescription for Complete Streets; each one is unique because it responds to its community context. A complete street may include:

  • sidewalks
  • bike lanes (or wide paved shoulders)
  • special bus lanes
  • comfortable and accessible public transportation stops
  • frequent and safe crossing opportunities
  • median islands
  • accessible pedestrian signals
  • curb extensions
  • narrower travel lanes
  • roundabouts

A complete street in a rural area will look quite different from a complete street in a dense, urban area, but both are designed to balance safety and convenience for everyone using the road (not just cars). Check out examples of Complete Streets case studies.

#6 Why would I want my community to have a Complete Streets policy?

Across the country and on Capitol Hill, Complete Streets policies have been gaining traction as more places realize the benefits of having safe, accessible and healthy streets in their communities.

With a Complete Streets policy in place, communities can work toward creating complete networks so people can safely and comfortably walk or bike anywhere they need to go. Complete Streets create opportunities for people to get physical activity in their day-to-day lives. They can connect people to schools, jobs, healthy foods, parks and other community amenities. And Complete Streets aren’t just safer and healthier – they also help create stronger economies, boosting jobs and revenue for local businesses.

#7 What’s in a Complete Streets policy?

Complete Streets can be achieved through a variety of policies:

  • ordinances and resolutions
  • rewrites of design manuals
  • inclusion in comprehensive plans
  • internal memos from directors of transportation agencies
  • policies adopted by city and county councils
  • and executive orders from elected officials, such as Mayors or Governors.

The strongest policies should include ten core elements, including identifying the most vulnerable users who the policy will benefit, committing to implement the policy in all transportation projects, working together with private developers and other jurisdictions, defining how the policy will measure success and setting up the next steps needed to implement the policy. Download the 10 elements.

#8 Does my community have a Complete Streets policy?

The National Complete Streets Coalition maintains an inventory of adopted Complete Street policies across the U.S. In total, over 1400 Complete Streets policies have been passed in the United States, including those adopted by 33 state governments, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. View Complete Streets policy atlas.

#9 Okay, I’m convinced. My community needs a Complete Streets policy. Where do I start?

Our policy framework, the Elements of a Complete Streets Policy, is an excellent place to start. Based on decades of collective expertise in transportation planning and design, the ten elements serve as a national model of best practices that can be implemented in nearly all types of Complete Streets policies at all levels of governance.

Eager for more information? You can subscribe to the National Complete Streets Coalition newsletter and follow them on twitter. The coalition also works directly with communities to help them develop, adopt and implement strong Complete Streets policies. Learn more about their technical assistance work.

active transportation

Active Transportation Choices May Affect Your Wallet and Waistline

It is not surprising that having healthy habits, like walking every day, is one way to fight the holiday bulge. But did you know that it can also keep a little extra padding in your pocketbook? As colder weather sets in many of us look forward to a fun and festive holiday season. This busy time of year and its blustery winter weather can also mean that some of our summertime activities and active transportation habits become a distant memory. Add to that the surplus of heart-warming treats and holiday beverages, and it’s easy to see why so many of us set resolutions to lose weight and exercise more when January 1st rolls around.

Active transportation is known as a solid way to get active, which can save on health care costs. Active transportation typically means walking or biking to get from place to place, but can also include using public transportation, where the active component is getting to and from stations or stops. An example of this comes from Toronto, Canada. Estimates from proposed improvements to the region’s transportation system would increase transit use by 7.8 percent. When these people switch from cars to transit, it’s projected to prevent 338 deaths, 1,000 cases of diabetes, and $1.67 billion USD ($2.2 billion CA) in annual health savings. It’s noteworthy that not all of these savings are from increased physical activity, as factors such as emissions reductions and reduced traffic fatalities were included in the estimates, but who’s going to scoff at those added benefits?

Of course, transitioning to walking places or taking public transit when you’re not doing so already isn’t easy. This is likely because of 60-plus years of development across the American landscape that prioritized sprawling, disconnected suburbs. Add to that an American culture with a deep fondness for car ownership and personal travel, and it takes planning and motivation to make active transportation a part of your daily routine. However, these changes are comfortable when a city builds activity-supportive environments.

For over 10 years, the American Fitness Index has monitored transportation systems and activity-supportive environments as key influencers of community fitness. This report evaluates the healthiness of cities – including several measures of active transportation. The percent of a city’s inhabitants who walk, bike or use public transportation to get to work, and the city’s average Walk Score – which measures how walking-friendly an area is for daily errands – are critical components of the overall Fitness Index rankings.

The Fitness Index aims to help public officials, concerned citizens, local community groups and health organizations assess the essential aspects of their city’s overall health and quality of life. While you plan to dig out the winter wardrobe, take some time to motivate yourself to walk, bike or even take public transit on your next outing, not only to fight that holiday bulge, but maybe save a little extra money for the holiday gift fund.

 

Author: Jane C. Hurley 

Anchorage Alaska Parks

Love parks? Anchorage, Alaska is the place for you!

Anchorage has more public access to park space per city acre than any other state in the United States, and its extremely variable climate presents the unique opportunity of hosting both winter and summer sports. Anchorage, the largest city in the state of Alaska, is surrounded by majestic mountain ranges and covered with forest and open fields. Recently, Anchorage was top of the “Parks” category in the 2018 American College of Sports Medicine’s American Fitness Index.

The Municipality of Anchorage, with 84.2 percent covered in parkland, easily leads the country for space designated to parks in a city. Anchorage also ranks first in the category of acres of parkland per 1,000 residents with over 223 parks, each averaging 4.7 acres in size. Up to 71% of Anchorage’s residents live within a ten-minute walk to one of its many parks. Most parks are available for use year-round, and the activities change along with the seasons. In the summer, temperatures reach as high as 90° F, averaging a comfortable 65° F. Soccer, football, disc golf and cycling are a common sight at local parks. Families spend time on the playgrounds and walk along Anchorage’s scenic trails. In the winter, however, temperatures can drop below -30° F, and Anchorage averages 74 inches of snow per year. Those conditions don’t stop the community from using their parks, but rather open up opportunities for cross country skiing on the freshly groomed 250 miles of trails, as well as downhill skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing in the backcountry. Additionally, many of Anchorage’s outdoor parks and facilities are designed for use during both winter and summer. Basketball courts and lakes, for example, are often “hot-mopped” and converted to free outdoor skating rinks.

Kincaid Park Anchorage Alaska
1,500 acre Kincaid Park is one of the most popular parks in Anchorage, Alaska.

One of the most popular parks is the 1,500-acre Kincaid Park. It is well known for its sand dunes and access to the beach, and a goat-trail path along a breathtaking 300-foot bluff. The community has free access to soccer fields, a disc golf course, archery, fishing and wildlife viewing. Many community groups, such as the University of Alaska Anchorage Nordic Ski Team, take advantage of nearly 40 miles of world-class trails, all of which are groomed over in winter and used for roller skiing during the summer. The park has been a host for many community, high-school and college ski races, as well as U.S. National Championships and Olympic trials.

Volunteers are an integral part of maintaining and beautifying Anchorage parks and trails. Every year, volunteers contribute thousands of hours of service to the Parks and Recreation Department because the people of Anchorage value their outdoor space. In 2013, volunteers tallied over 125,000 hours of service to Anchorage parks. From general upkeep to specific jobs like grooming trails and prepping outdoor skating rinks, the volunteers are the reason that Alaska’s parks remain world-class.

With all of its magnificent parks, it’s obvious why outdoor enthusiasts are drawn from all over the world to visit Anchorage. Whether winter or summer, Anchorage is the perfect place to get moving outside and enjoy all that the 49th state has to offer without having to drive more than 20 miles in any direction.

Authors: Maryann Hoke, Junland Navarro, Yvonne Jeschke, Liam Lindsay and Darrion Gray of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department of the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Regional Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. 

Parks: More Than Just a Playground

Summertime is in full swing, and, for many of us, it’s the time of year we consider engaging with the great outdoors. However, as much as we might like, we can’t make every day a journey into nature … or can we? Local parks are a significant way to bring a piece of nature into our neighborhoods. And perhaps surprisingly, they may be doing a lot more good than just being a place to take the kids for a push on the swing.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination that parks help communities be more physically active. The relationship between parks and activity levels is so strong that the American Fitness Index – a ranking that evaluates the health and fitness of cities – includes several measures of parks in a community. For example, the rankings look at the total number of parks, the percent of residents living within a ten-minute walk to a park, and even local government spending on parks, a policy-level consideration. These are just a few featured indicators that are used to evaluate the cities that are ranked yearly.

Science shows that in addition to getting people to move more, parks also improve mental well-being and are essential for community connectedness—a critical aspect of social health.

One might wonder how a simple park can achieve so much! The open space or grassy areas in parks are great places to play catch with a friend or do exercises on your own. In addition, parks provide beautiful tree canopies for walking and moments of tranquility. And of course, many parks have sports fields or courts for team activities, outdoor gyms, and playground equipment for kids that can easily be repurposed for working out.

And what about mental health? The mental health community knows that “greenspace” positively impacts psychological well-being. Greenspace is an umbrella term that includes both open wilderness and urban parks and has been linked to greater mental health and well-being. Not only do parks and greenspace support physical activity, which is well known to improve mental health, but they also benefit psychological health through peaceful and relaxing sounds as well as feelings of closeness to nature. Related to this are the benefits parks and greenspace may have to social health, one driver of which is community connectedness. The physical parkland area may attract family, friends, and the larger community to come together for various social reasons.

And finally, parks may actually be saving money in health care costs. A recent UK report found that park users are healthier – saving an astonishing £111 million (US$146 million) in medical expenses for that country.

The parks in our neighborhoods are spaces that can contribute significantly to our health and well-being. While seasonal activities are a great way to get outdoors, for many, local parks are accessible nearly every day of the year. See how your city ranks on parks plus many other health and fitness indicators in the 2018 American Fitness Index.

Author

Jane C. Hurley