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The American Fitness Index in 2020 | The Essential Nature of Parks

For more than a decade the ACSM American Fitness Index® has provided an annual snapshot of community fitness for some of the largest cities and metro areas in the United States. From the start, the Fitness Index acknowledged the importance of parks, recreation facilities and assets like playgrounds, tennis courts and swimming pools. Not only are these resources for physical and mental health, they are civic, social and economic drivers. In a word, parks and recreation are essential.

Parks and public spaces are having a moment in 2020. The last four months have seen extraordinary changes for American cities and their residents. When the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading across the U.S., public officials closed schools and government offices, issued stay-at-home orders and restricted travel to only essential functions. With more time at home, many people did something they’ve never done before – they visited their local parks, walked on a neighborhood trail or dusted off their bikes and rode with confidence in a bike lane for the first time. City infrastructure like parks, trails, sidewalks and bike lanes were viewed in a whole new light. They were no longer just nice-to-have amenities; instead they quickly became essential public resources.

As the days and weeks wore on, parks transformed into escapes from our homes. On a dime, parks departments moved from organizing summer rec leagues and swimming lessons, to providing meals for school children, and eventually, to any person experiencing food insecurity. Parks departments also offered childcare for front-line workers, a critical component for ensuring workforce capacity was maximized.

Parks are much more than ball fields, picnic tables and charcoal grills. Parks are civic places as well, essential for historic and current protests seeking social justice and human rights. From speeches and marches on the National Mall to demonstrations in local parks, these public spaces have a long history of serving as a platform for change makers.

This agility and willingness to meet the needs of the community is not new to parks departments. For years they have delivered essential services, but rarely have they been funded at levels that reflect their value to the community. As the economic recession deepens, city tax revenue is in steep decline. Parks departments face dramatic budget cuts, hiring freezes and layoffs. Despite having filled critical gaps in the community, while generating more than $166 billion in economic activity and supporting more than 1.1 million jobs, public officials do not perceive parks departments as contributing to their biggest concern – economic development.

Parks, trails and recreation facilities attract business development and new residents, shape the quality of life for entire neighborhoods, and drive investment in communities. It is in all of our interest to call on public officials at all levels of government to increase funding for parks and recreation and to ensure equitable distribution of funds, resources and programming. As the writer and journalist Marty Rubin said, “Parks and playgrounds are the soul of a city.”

Authors: Barbara Ainsworth, Ph.D., M.P.H., FACSM, FNAK, Arizona State University; Stella Volpe, Ph.D., R.D.N., ACSM-CEP, FACSM, Virginia Tech; Gretchen Patch, M.P.H. , American College of Sports Medicine

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 

July is National Park and Recreation Month!

Since 1985, America has celebrated July as the nation’s official Park and Recreation Month. The American Fitness Index recognizes the importance of community parks and recreational areas and the role they play as a contributing environmental indicator for better health and physical activity.

OUT is IN

A study conducted for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) found that 3 in 10 U.S. adults do not spend time outdoors on a daily basis. NRPA wants to break that trend with their OUT is IN campaign. The program emphasizes how parks and recreation services are vital assets for our communities in battling the obesity epidemic and chronic disease.

Get out there and play!

Taking advantage of your local public park is a simple and economical way to improve your physical fitness. Parks offer children and adults an opportunity to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity during their visit.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having access to parks and playgrounds can initiate other healthy lifestyle choices.

What are some other ways parks can promote health?

Want to see first hand what parks and recreation can do to benefit your health? The Trust for Public Land created this fun video on how your local park makes an impact on your health and the health of your community.