“It Takes a Village” to Promote Physical Activity: The Potential for Public Park and Recreation Departments


  • Karla A. Henderson
  • Linda J. Neff
  • Patricia A. Sharpe
  • Mary L. Greaney
  • Sherer W. Royce
  • Barbara E. Ainsworth


Physical activity, community development, health promotion, partnerships, health benefits, community recreation, social ecology


Physical activity is often considered the responsibility of individuals. Recently, however, interest has developed in social ecological approaches that focus on a full spectrum of behavioral influences such as social and physical environments. A public park and recreation department has influence over some of the environmental and policy determinants of physical activity in a community. Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory examination of one community was to analyze the perceptions of people regarding physical activity, and to interpret the results from a social ecological perspective regarding how public parks and recreation staff might further promote active lifestyles. Data came from six focus groups conducted during April-June 1999 in a community in the Southeast United States. The six groups included a women’s walking group, teachers and school employees, YMCA members and employees, a Chamber of Commerce business group, a Community Coalition for Physical Activity group related to Healthy People 2000 objectives, and participants in senior (older adult) services. A total of 52 people who ranged in age from 22-75 years were involved in the group interviews. The participants were 46% African American and 54% European American with 70% of the participants women. Each of the focus groups was audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. A systematic method was used for coding and analyzing these qualitative data. Focus group participants expressed their perceptions about quality of life in the community and the physical activity opportunities that were available for themselves, their family, and friends. Constraints or barriers to participation were addressed. Although many of these constraints were individual in nature, they had environmental and policy implications. The potential for enhancing and promoting physical activity by public parks and recreation as well as local government, businesses, churches, schools, and health departments was described by the focus group members and was illustrated in a model that developed from these data. The results supported more efforts by the public park and recreation department, as well as a multisectoral approach, to providing physical activity opportunities in active communities. The major conclusions that emerged from these data that might be considered in other similar communities were: 1) Park and recreation departments, along with other community groups, can have an increasing role in creating a definition of an “active” community. The greatest challenge is not only to educate people that physical activity is good for them, but also to educate them about ways that they can become physically active. 2) A range of settings, facilities, and programs for children and adults as well as education for, and information about, physical activity must be available. 3) Physical activity does not occur in a vacuum. Issues such as transportation and accessibility must be accommodated regarding what already exists as well as in determining new initiatives. 4) Safety concerns are crucial in the design and planning of supportive physical activity environments. This safety includes physical safety as well as perceived safety. 5. Partnerships will be required to promote physical activity in a community. A joint effort with a shared vision and conjoint responsibilities is required. “It takes a village” to promote physical activity in a community.





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