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People, Places & Parks Thought Leader Uncategorized

The Importance of Parks and Trails to Our Health

John A. Steward, M.P.H.

John A. Steward, R.E.H.S., MPH, has been a member of the faculty of the School of Public Health of Georgia State University since 2006, and manages the Partnership for Urban Health Research, a university-wide initiative to encourage research into the health of people in urban settings. He has been a registered environmental health specialist (R.E.H.S.) for 30 years, and is a member of the International Society for Urban Health, American Public Health Association, the National Environmental Health Association, the Georgia Environmental Health Association and the Uniformed Services Environmental Health Association.

Do you take a multi-vitamin for your health? If you are truly health conscious, you may decide to skip the pill, lace up your shoes, and visit a nearby trail or park.

Most of us would agree that parks and outdoor green, natural areas are important assets to any community. We readily acknowledge how parks enhance the value of our neighborhoods, increase the beauty, and provide venues for recreation and social activities.

But how often do we consider the park as an asset to shape and improve people’s health?

Health scientists have compiled an impressive amount of research results showing that parks and trails are good for health and for avoiding adverse health outcomes, like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Besides the obvious opportunities for physical activity, studies have found that being in nature itself provides many health benefits, physically and mentally. Stress is reduced, and mental function is improved. Soil, trees, and landscape address environmental pollution, which also supports good public health. Parks provide a place for interacting with community members and builds social ties, which is important to improving health, too.

Briarlake Forest Park is a newly-established park in Dekalb County. It was a former farm and home site that now consists of 21 acres of mostly wooded land. The woods are home to a substantial number of old growth trees (oaks, beech, poplar, and pine), and the headwaters of several streams leading to south Peachtree Creek cross the property. Slightly more than a mile of trails has been developed to make the beautiful forest accessible.

In early 2017, the Friends of Briarlake Forest Park, a community group that supports the park, wanted to find out how the park users felt about this new park. The Friends conducted an online survey of how community members perceived the park and what their experience had been.

The questions asked people how frequently they visited, how long they stayed, what kinds of activity they participated in, how the traveled to the park, and who usually accompanied them.

The park survey asked how likely it was that the presence of the park had benefited their personal health. Then, it asked for specific reasons about how the park might have impacted their health. The results were compelling, as 83% (of the total 177 responses) stated that it was likely that the park had a positive impact on their health. Specific impacts mentioned included physical activity, mental health improvement, relaxation, stress relief, increased outdoor activity, social interaction, muscle strengthening, increased exposure to clean air, and other reasons.  Here are a few examples:

  • It is a peaceful tranquil place minutes from my home where I can enjoy nature, meet neighbors and walk my dog. A great benefit to my mental health!
  • I think the whole neighborhood is walking more!
  • I love walking through the park because the minute I step foot into it I can feel the stress melting away. It makes me feel like I have gotten away from the city even though I am still in it.
  • Mental health improved by having a natural place to walk away from cars, place to meet others and socialize, sense of community.

Health is shaped by many factors, including our social ties and our physical environment. We can decide that we want our communities to promote a culture of health by designing, building, and maintaining health-promoting features. Parks and trails are crucial to shaping healthy communities that allow all its members to be healthy to the greatest extent possible.

A note from Park Pride:

Park Pride is proud to provide support to the Friends of Briarlake Forest Park in their pursuit of creating a well-used, well-loved park! If you’d like to get involved in your local Friends of the Park group, or learn how to start a new Friends of the Park group, please visit the Park Pride website.

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2 Comments

  1. Laurie Marion May 11, 2017 2:56 pm

    Great follow-up of work by the Briarlake Community Forest Alliance linking results of the 2006 Georgia Conservancy’s study of the LaVista Road Corridor with community public health needs: http://briarlakecommunityforest.org/the-briarlake-forest-and-the-lavista-road-study/.Report

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