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Healthy Challenges: an editorial

America's health and fitness crisis creates an opportunity to promote trails and greenways.

By Stuart Macdonald

"What if trails and parks turn out to be not just civic decoration, but an essential, community investment in public health?"

Have you seen charts that show year by year the increasing percentages of overweight citizens? The statistics all point to some sobering trends— 60% of adults don't get the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity, and 30% are completely sedentary.

I shouldn't have been surprised to learn there is an American Obesity Association, but they have a great quote that sums up the situation perfectly: "Today's youth are considered the most inactive generation in history caused in part by reductions in school physical education programs and unavailable or unsafe community recreational facilities."

photo of runners on trail

Austin's Town Lake Trail is a favored facility for fitness-oriented walking, running, and biking (photo by Stuart Macdonald)


As a matter of fact, we have a nationwide network of safe community recreational facilities— we call them trails and greenways. We don't have enough of them, we don't have enough money, and we don't have the support and political will we need. But for all of us who support more and better trails, we now have the best reason of all— trails are good for you!

When have trails and greenways advocates been handed such an invitation? Along with this promise come some challenges, if we are to truly seize this amazing opportunity.

Our first challenge is to figure out what makes a trail ideal for exercise. It is clear that some trails are wildly popular while others slowly return to nature. But what kinds of design elements, signs, or other features encourage use? We should experiment with design, and tying trails into facilities like playgrounds, recreation centers, and workplaces.

A second challenge is to learn from the inactive people as well as from the active ones. We need to know what trails look like from the perspective of people who don't use them. We hear all the time from the trail runners, peak baggers, endurance riders, and hill climbers. But how do we help people take those first steps to healthy activity? How do we teach them about the delights and emotional benefits of being on a trail instead of a treadmill?

Another challenge is to reach out to other agencies and community interests who have an interest in health— and who may know more about it than we do. Hospitals, wellness centers, schools, and health agencies should all be on our list of possible partners, both in developing trails as well as promoting them.

And a final challenge, perhaps most important of all— how do we measure positive health outcomes? We can talk all day about programs and promotions for parks and trail use, but can we document that more people are walking more miles? Are they healthier, do they spend less on medication, do they live more productive lives?

What a powerful tool we have been given by the attention on health and obesity! What if trails and parks turn out to be not just civic decoration, but an essential, community investment in public health?

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