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Teens near parks are more active

Teenagers who live close to a park or open space are more likely to get exercise than those who live in areas without parks nearby, according to a new Center policy brief.

Only 25% of adolescents lived near a park or open space in California. Yet nearly 45% of California teens with access to a park reported that they bike, run, play sports or do other physical activity for at least one hour a day, at least five days a week, the study found. In contrast, only one-third of teens who did not live close to a park had the same level of physical activity.

“There are perks to having a park nearby,” said Susan H. Babey, a Center senior research scientist and lead author of the study. “And one of the biggest ones for teens seems to be physical activity. Having access to a welcoming green space makes it more likely that teenagers will get up and get moving.”

Three-quarters of California teens reported visiting a park in the past month. About 40% of those adolescents aged 12-17 said they were physically active for at least 60 minutes on five or more days in a week. The report said low-income teens are less likely to meet physical activity recommendations as they were only physically active for at least one hour on five or more days during the week, which researchers believe is due to their lack of access to safe parks. Low-income teens are half as likely to perceive their neighborhood park as a safe place compared with teens living above the poverty level.

“Teens’ perceptions of the safety of their local parks likely plays an important role in whether teens use their parks, regardless of income. But safety of local parks is an issue particularly for low-income teens because they are more likely to perceive local parks as unsafe, as our current research found.”

In addition, Babey said in previous research using the California Health Interview Survey published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, we examined whether having access to a safe park was more important to certain groups of teens. More low-income teens indeed achieved at least an hour of physical activity – the level that is recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – if they thought their park was safe.

In California, only 15% of adolescents meet the recommendation of at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day and only 37% engage in physical activity for 60 minutes at least five days per week. The report urges policymakers and community leaders to:

-Invest in maintenance, improvements to amenities and recreational programming in existing parks

-Create joint use agreements that allow community use of school grounds on weekends and outside of school hours, especially in low-income neighborhoods

-Improve park security and aesthetics to increase park use

-Target efforts to improve access to safety of low-income neighborhoods and other park-poor areas.

“Share-use agreements that allow community members to use school facilities when school is not in session can be a cost-effective way to increase opportunities for physical activity,” Babey said. “There are a number of groups working to help schools and communities establish feasible shared-use agreements. In California, for example, ChangeLab Solutions has worked extensively in this area and provides a number of resources including model agreements and free workshops, as well as primers on liability and the protections afforded to schools under the law.”

To read the full policy brief, go to http://healthpolicy.ucla.edu/publications/Documents/PDF/parkaccesspb-mar2013.pdf .

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