Lead author Deborah A. Cohen, a senior natural scientist at Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization, and colleagues examined 50 parks across Los Angeles and found simple interventions such as increased signage boosted physical activity by 7 percent to 12 percent from 2007 to 2012 in relation to parks that did not make changes.
"The study shows that environmental cues influence and change individual behavior, including physical behavior," Cohen said in a statement. "When physical activity opportunities and reminders become more obvious, whether they are overt signs or notices for classes or new walking paths, they may lead people to become more active, especially if they are already in a park."
An increase in physical activity among people in Finland in the past few decades has been attributed, in part, to an increased focus on local parks and sports facilities. In contrast, many U.S. municipalities -- including Los Angeles -- have trimmed support for public physical activity programs and parks during the same time period.
The study involved 50 parks in Los Angeles that included a recreation center and full-time staff randomized into three groups. In the first group, the park director worked with the research team to determine how to attract more park users and increase physical activity. The research project made $4,000 available to each park for marketing, outreach and programming activities.
In the second group, the research team worked with the park director and an existing local park advisory board to collect and analyze information about park usage and decide how to spend the extra funds. The third group of parks did not receive any additional help.
The study, published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found both groups that received funding spent most of the money on improving signage that encouraged people to participate in park-sponsored activities.