This article appeared in the California Parks & Recreation magazine and describes the role of parks and recreation in promoting the health and wellness benefits of park and recreation agencies.

Promote Health and Wellness

The values of good health and wellness have been extolled to the American public for years. The paths to good health include exercising, good nutrition and reducing stress levels. Despite all the encouragement for Americans to become more active and eat well, the statistics show that people are not acting on that information. It may be hard to believe that an estimated 250,000 people die in our country every year because of inactivity, but the evidence is continually more convincing. Inactivity is second only to smoking, which causes 400,000 preventable deaths in the United States annually—more than auto accidents, breast cancer, colon cancer and alcohol combined.(1) The number of deaths attributed to inactivity in 1999 was as high as 280,000.(2)

The statistics on overweight Americans is even more telling. The definition of overweight is a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 or greater. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by his/her height in meters squared. More than half of U.S. adults are overweight and nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults are obese (BMI > 30).(3)

Promoting activity through recreation experiences is what park and recreation professionals do best. They understand that most programming is recognized as fun. But when “selling” the programming to policy makers, programmers must recognize the other benefits as well. A youth karate class provides recreation experiences (mission area #9), fosters human development (mission area #1), strengthens safety and security (mission area #5) and with a little program tweaking may include increasing cultural unity (mission area #2).

Promoting health and wellness through park and recreation programming goes beyond just the physical fitness of people, it should include medical and mental health programming. Promoting the mental health values of some classes may help increase attendance. A Tai Chi, gardening or art class offers stress reduction benefits to participants.

Medical health programming could include such services as:

  • glycoma testing
  • diabetes awareness and testing
  • blood pressure awareness and testing
  • health screenings
  • immunization or flu vaccinations
  • nutrition services

The City of La Palma Recreation & Community Services Department recently released their 2000-2001 work plan. As part of their three-year strategic plan, the goal of the department is to make a difference in their community’s well-being, through partnerships, programs services and places. They identified three community target issues:

  • Support a strong community
  • Create and enhance places for people to gather
  • Encourage and support health and well-being

The plan states “Health and Wellness focuses on improving the physical and mental health, fitness, and well-being of individuals, families, and especially our aging population; and creating educational and recreational experiences for all ages around nature and the environment.”(4)

The City of La Palma identified ten performance measures in relation to the strategic goal of “Supporting a community that is healthy and promoting well being for all.” Some of them are:

  • Increase resident’s awareness of the benefits for sustaining a healthy lifestyle through the establishment of alternative fitness programs.
  • Develop a plan of action that will establish strong health and wellness programs for all ages.
  • Develop a plan of action that will expand transportation for home-bound residents to needed services to sustain health and wellness of all individuals.
  • Interface with the department’s marketing plan to promote this division’s programs and services.
  • Review and evaluate existing health & wellness programs with the intent of supporting the Department’s Strategic Plan for the next two years and strengthening programs’ ability to garner intended outcomes.

To reach these goals the Recreation & Community Services department identified specific task to accomplish, assigned them to appropriate staff and gave them target dates of completion during the upcoming year. Of the many tasks identified here is a small sampling:

Identify community and regional resources relative to health and wellness/environmental education

The City of La Palma is currently researching a variety of resources for possible future partnerships. Partnerships can be local or outside the City of La Palma. On the list so far are the Orange County Parks & Recreation, Orange County Health Services, La Palma Intercommunity Hospital and Kaiser Permanente.

Introduce new and innovative health and fitness alternatives.

This includes some new programming but mostly the reworking of existing programs. The City of La Palma hosts a 5K and 10K Run/Walk on the Fourth of July. The event has been changed to focus on health and wellness. The name was changed to “La Palma Fitness Run for Fun” and now incorporates a one-mile non-competitive fitness stroll aimed at families called “Family Fun One.” In conjunction with the run, the city has a health and wellness fair, emphasizing physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.

Integrate health education into all division’s programs and activities

The city incorporated physical fitness into its after school program through its award winning Fit N Fun program. Future plans include incorporating health education components into youth sports programs and day camps.

Establish ongoing programs that increase awareness and appreciation of healthy lifestyles for mature adults, seniors and frail seniors.

The City of La Palma promotes and hosts health education speakers and programs into their Senior Club meetings. In partnership with La Palma Intercommunity Hospital, the city provided an “Armchair Exercise” class, meeting once per week. The city also instituted a senior transportation program, entitled “CAT – Commute Around Town” whereby seniors who are not able to drive themselves can be transported to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments.

Engineer measurement plans to review & evaluate health and fitness programs in this service area

In terms of health and wellness, the city will measure improved blood pressure and heart rates for senior citizens (taken monthly at Senior Club meetings) and a drop in the number of residents with hearth attack or stroke-related problems (tracked through association with La Palma Intercommunity Hospital and Orange County’s annual health reports). The city also performs fitness tests on participants in the Fit N Fun program.

The City of La Palma recognized the importance of health and wellness in a community. They understand that the park and recreation department can be the catalyst for reaching people in the community and getting them fit physically, emotionally and mentally.

Americans spend $33 billion annually on weight-loss products and services. This figure represents consumer dollars spent in the early 1990s on all efforts at weight loss or weight maintenance including low-calorie foods, artificially sweetened products such as diet sodas, and memberships to commercial weight-loss centers.5 The American public can easily be categorized as lazy, yet it seems they are willing to spend large amounts of money to become healthier. Park and recreation agencies need to capitalize on this economic opportunity. Refocusing programs and promoting the health benefits of current services will help agencies reach this expanding market.