"Relatively modest investments could make parks much more conducive to physical activity for everyone, regardless of age, gender or income level," said study author Dr. Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist at the Rand Corp.
Researchers who analyzed use of more than 170 parks across the country found few activities designed to attract adults and older people. Even girls and young women are less likely than males to play in neighborhood parks, the study authors noted.
"Our nation's public parks have much unmet potential to be a center of physical activity for adults, older Americans and females," Cohen said in a news release from the nonprofit research organization.
Walking loops were most effective at getting older people to be physically active. Gyms, fitness zones and exercise areas also helped older people to engage in moderate to vigorous activity, the study showed.
"It's really sad that so few seniors are using our public parks," Cohen said. "We need to make changes to attract older people to parks to exercise and stay active, especially with the increasing rates of chronic disease among older people and as our nation's population grows older."
For the study, observers were sent into 174 local parks in 25 cities of at least 100,000 people. During the spring and summer of 2014, they analyzed the types of activities offered, who used them and how.
Girls accounted for only 40 percent of children playing in the parks. Among teens, only 35 percent were female, the researchers found. They noted that girls of all ages were less likely to play any organized sports and more likely to be sedentary than boys.
Residents of poor neighborhoods were also less likely to use their local park -- even if it was similar to parks in higher-income neighborhoods, the study showed. It's unclear if this was the result of safety concerns, but the researchers recommended better marketing to boost usage in poorer neighborhoods. Offering more supervised activities could also help, they noted.
The researchers also interviewed the parks' senior administrators. They found none routinely monitored or tracked usage of their facilities, programs or sports leagues.
"The fire department or the police department can tell you exactly how many people use their services, but parks and recreation departments have not had any metrics to adequately report who is using their facilities," Cohen said. "The tools we created for this project are now being used by researchers across the United States and could help park managers better understand who is using their facilities."
Across the United States, there are more than 108,000 public parks and 65,000 indoor facilities that are managed by more than 9,000 park and recreation departments. Local parks range in size from 2 acres to 20 acres, the researchers reported.
The researchers also discovered that investment in city parks was modest, even though they're recommended for health. The average annual per capita spending for parks in the nation's 100 largest cities was $73 in 2013, according to the Trust for Public Land. This represents less than 1 percent of all spending on health care for each person that year, according to the report.
The study was published May 18 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on the benefits of physical activity.
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