A Walk in the Park: Exploring the Impact of Parks and Recreation Amenities as Activity-Promoting Features of the Built Environment
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Social ecological models of physical activity (PA) promotion embrace a wide range of factors and disciplines that may contribute to active living. Parks, trails, and recreation facilities have been acknowledged as important components of the built environment for promoting PA and overall health, but little research has investigated these community resources in detail. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the association between the presence and characteristics of parks and recreation amenities and PA levels of community members. The study involved four integrated components: i) a written questionnaire with 585 adult residents from four Waterloo planning districts that addressed a variety of personal, psychosocial, and environmental correlates of PA, ii) a detailed seven-day log booklet of recreational, transportation, household and job-related PA episodes, iii) objective assessment of PA via accelerometers, and iv) observation and rating of parks for their features that may be related to PA. Ratings of psychosocial characteristics (e.g., self-efficacy, social support) and perceptions of neighbourhood walkability attributes (e.g., land use diversity, street connectivity) were significantly different between those who engaged in some PA versus those who engaged in no PA, but neighbourhood perceptions did not moderate the relationship between psychosocial variables and PA, nor did psychosocial variables mediate the relationship between neighbourhood perceptions and PA. Parks and trails were used in approximately 8% and 3% of total PA episodes, respectively, with an average duration per episode of 49 minutes and 38 minutes, respectively. Parks with more facilities for PA and supporting amenities were more likely to be used for PA than parks with fewer facilities and amenities, and trails were the park feature most strongly related to park-based PA. The number of municipal parks within 1 km from participants’ homes the and total parkland area within 1 km were associated with higher odds of neighbourhood PA and neighbourhood park PA, while distance to the closest park from home was not related to either outcome. Although subject to several limitations, these results provide guidance for municipal and park planners in designing communities and the resources within them to promote increased levels of PA and active living. Suggestions for future research include studying environmental correlates of PA among youth and older adults, direct observation of PA in parks, and development of a comprehensive surveillance system to track both changes in the built environment and associated changes in residents’ PA participation.