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Vision and recommendations to encourage the National Park Service to manage and promote parks as places for people to take part in physically active experiences and not just to “see the parks,” thus contributing to a healthier nation.


Health, Recreation, and our National Parks

photo of trail and ocean

Trails at Point Reyes National Seashore


Photos by Stuart Macdonald


The National Park Service has a rich history of preserving special places that inspire and enrich our lives. National parks provide opportunities for improving America’s intellectual, physical and spiritual well being. An original idea that has been emulated world wide, the National Park Service is prepared to continue its leadership role as a premier conservation and recreation agency into the 21st century.

Recreation in natural settings provided by parks is becoming increasingly important as our lives become dominated by built environments and indoor activities. Pursuing recreation in a park setting enables people to develop a clearer understanding of their relationship to nature, which can influene their everyday lives. Natural park settings alone have quite a powerful effect as a form of a health intervention.

A recent survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation found that human-powered outdoor activities are popular and span age and gender. The longevity of outdoor participation is rooted not only in the functional health benefits, but also in the emotional benefits of actual participation. Over three-fourths of participants agree that participating in outdoor activities gives them a feeling of accomplishment, an escape from life’s pressures and a connection with themselves (Outdoor Industry Foundation’s Exploring the Active Lifestyle survey, 2004).

In 2001, the National Park System Advisory Board issued a report, Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, which included among its recommendations that the National Park Service should:

photo of people on trail

Goals for Acadia National Park are to improve nonmotorized
access to the Park while avoiding adverse impacts


In 2005, NPS Director Fran Mainella established a National Park Service Legacy Initiative and 4-year goals: Doing Business in the 21st Century, which recognizes the critical responsibility of the NPS to provide appropriate outdoor recreation and to contribute to the physical and mental well-being of all Americans by promoting a seamless network of parks and continuing to link ongoing recreation opportunities at national parks to health and fitness.

Consistent with these key issues, the National Park System Advisory Board established a Committee on Health and Recreation in late 2004 to explore and prepare a report on “The National Park Service’s role in increasing public awareness of recreation opportunities to help address the nation’s health needs.” Following are the results of the Committee’s work. The findings and recommendations of this report address the goals of the President’s HealthierUS Initiative and Executive Order 13266 and are consistent with the National Park Service Mission Statement:

“The National Park Service is dedicated to conserving unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations... to help extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country.”



Health and Physical Activity

A report of the Surgeon General in 1996 identified the importance of physical activity and the health benefits that such activity provides if undertaken on a regular basis. According to this report, just 30 minutes of brisk walking, bicycling, or even working around the house or yard most days of the week will reduce an individual’s risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Regular physical activity also reduces anxiety, negative mood and depression, and improves self-esteem and cognitive functioning.

In June 2002, President Bush established the HealthierUS Initiative and issued Executive Order 13266, which have as their objective the improvement of individual personal health through simple improvements in physical activity and behavior. Public lands and programs at the federal, state and local level provide a significant venue for recreation and physical activity opportunities. Public parks, recreation areas, trails, and open space that are accessible to public use are underutilized resources in addressing the nation’s needs in health and wellness. Recreation is a means through which physical activity opportunities can be provided, especially for key target groups.

Healthful Recreation

photo of walkers and runners along canal

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is working to
develop the potential of the canal for public recreation

Participation in outdoor recreation provides a range of well-documented benefits. These include mental and spiritual well-being, an increase in self-esteem, an appreciation for the natural and cultural environment in which the activity is taking place, and health benefits derived from involvement in physical activities. The National Park Service is well suited and situated to provide opportunities that positively influence physical activity behavior with a focus on better promotion and encouragement of healthful recreation activities. Physical activity in parks can be increased through existing recreational opportunities and by taking into consideration such factors as access, convenience, safety, and aesthetics.

The National Park Service through its parks and park-related programs provides an array of recreation opportunities, including hiking, walking, paddling, jogging, bicycling, snowshoeing, and skiing, and other forms of healthful physically active recreation activities. We find that many parks already are providing and promoting opportunities to participate in recreation activities that have direct health benefits, and many parks have unrealized potential to achieve these same ends. What we lack is solid data that quantifies and, in turn, validates the value national parks provide in promoting a healthier America through appropriate recreational activities.

Understanding Our Role

Validating Our Role

Before considering any full-scale servicewide initiative, the NPS should first implement and evaluate a set of pilot projects. The implementation and evaluation of health and recreation pilot park initiatives (one per region) can help the NPS further explore and understand the opportunities to incorporate a culture of health and wellness into existing recreational activities that are widely accepted in the national parks. Pilot parks can serve as models for encouraging healthful participation in the outdoors.

Public health specialists use the term “intervention” when they propose to take action in the attempt to change health behaviors. A set of seven health and recreation pilot park intervention concept plans (one for each region) have been developed and should be implemented in tandem with the application of consistent performance indicators to determine and hopefully demonstrate the validity of the NPS to promote and provide opportunities for healthful recreational activities. Pilot park concepts will be developed using a “logic model approach,” as advised by the Centers for Disease Control.

Relying on an Evidence-based Approach

Implementation strategies to improve visitor health by promoting physical activity should rely on scientific evidence. The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, with the review of interventions that promote physical activity. On the basis of strong evidence of effectiveness, the Task Force recommends: creation of or improved access to places for physical activity, combined with distribution of information (outreach) that increases public awareness of these places. What has not been studied or determined is the effectiveness of implementing this intervention strategy in national parks. Additionally, scientific evidence suggests the following:

Committee recommendations

Committee members embrace a collective vision for the National Park Service to address the topic of Health and Recreation, as follows: The National Park Service conveys health benefits to the American public by providing places for healthful, physically active recreation in the great outdoors. The National Park Service is uniquely suited and situated to:

The Committee recommends that the National Park Service undertake seven pilot intervention projects beginning in 2006. The purpose of the pilots is to test, measure and validate the premise that parks contribute to healthy lifestyle through active participation in park based recreational activities.

These pilots consist of three “destination” parks— Sitka National Historical Park, Zion National Park and Acadia National Park, and four “urban” parks— Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Each of these pilots will focus on the following key outcomes in undertaking their pilot intervention projects:

Outcome 1: Increase awareness of health benefits by park visitors derived from participation in recreation in National Parks.
Outcome 2: Increase healthful recreation/physical activity behavior in national parks.
Outcome 3: Increase healthful recreation/regular physical activity behavior as a lifestyle at home.

The minimum threshold for healthful recreation activities for National Park Service communications, evaluation and reporting purposes is 30 minutes of activity (walking, biking, paddling, etc.) per day visit. This corresponds to the Surgeon General's endorsement of the physical activity recommendation for adults to engage in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.

The communications strategy should accomplish the following objectives:

The Committee believes that outcomes from the pilot projects will lead to NPS employing health and recreation interventions servicewide. However, this assertion needs to be scientifically demonstrated. The Committee further believes that the results derived from the pilot projects will provide an irrefutable means for NPS to affirm its role in contributing to our nation’s health through interpretive based messaging interventions. Therefore, we recommend that NPS, through its Interpretive and Social Science Program, work with the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CESU) system to design and implement a set of evaluation methods for each of the pilot projects to:

The Committee recommends a deliberate and detailed approach to sharing the results and possibilities generated by this Report and the pilot projects. A Health and Recreation Communications Plan will facilitate success, both in the short and long term, by proactively engaging and informing specific audiences. The Communications Plan should define the boundaries, clarify expectations, and customize messages to create greater potential for shared commitment at many levels. By undertaking a purposeful effort to communicate with all staff, volunteers, concessions employees, recreationists, and partners the NPS can foster informed messengers to the public. References to widely accepted forms of recreation (walking, biking, paddling) and the long tradition of these types of recreation in parks beginning with John Muir, links a rich history to a healthy future.

The Committee suggests the Health and Recreation Communications Plan be developed upon completion of the pilots and evaluation of the intervention strategies.

Pilot Park Intervention Concepts








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