Local Park Use and Personal Health Among Older Adults: An Exploratory Study


  • Laura Payne
  • Elizabeth Orsega-Smith
  • Mark Roy
  • Geoffrey C. Godbey


Regular park use is common among older adults. However, this use has only recently (i.e., last 15 years) been recognized as related to health and health policy. Although visits to parks are thought of as recreation, increasing evidence indicates such behavior has significant health consequences. Given the huge and growing expenditures for health in the United States, the aging of the population, and the consequences of the Baby Boom cohort reaching old age, new ways of conceptualizing and delivering health care will occur rapidly. Recreation and park professionals need to better understand the ways in which lowcost, readily available resources such as local parks may contribute to personal health and the potential for such a contribution to be increased. This study was undertaken to examine the relationship between use of local parks and self-reported individual health among adults 50 years of age and older. Specific aims were to examine: (1) sociodemographic differences between park users and non-park users, (2) differences in perceived health between park users and non-park users, (3) the logistics (e.g., frequency, travel mode) of park use, (4) benefits attributed to park use, and 5) the relationship between park access and perceived health. A questionnaire was developed and distributed in cooperation with Cleveland Metroparks and a grant from the National Recreation Foundation. The questionnaire was distributed in parks, supermarkets, shopping malls, and senior centers to achieve a diverse sample of both park and non-park users. The survey included questions about personal health (i.e., physical, mental), social support, health behaviors, park and leisure behavior, and demographics.

The results of this exploratory study indicated support for the contention that local parks should be thought of as a part of a viable strategy for health promotion and disease prevention. Park use was fairly extensive among older Cleveland residents, with 33% who visited a local park frequently and 53% who visited occasionally. Regarding use of Cleveland Metroparks, the mean number of annual visits was 30 and 12% of respondents visited a Cleveland Metropark at least once per week. The majority of older park users were physically active during their visit, with over 69% obtaining moderate or high levels of physical activity. An average visit lasted about 2 hours and users spent about half of their time walking.

The benefits that older local park users ascribed to their visits were mostly health related. In addition, people who lived within walking distance of a park used parks significantly more than individuals without a park within walking distance. Moreover, individuals with a park within walking distance were in better health than those without a park nearby. Results suggested that parks are a viable context for health promotion activities such as physical activity.





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