As the evenings grow longer, most of us have already begun to spend more time outside by taking the longer walk home or jogging outdoors rather than inside the gym. Summer is on its way and with it come softball games on dirt diamonds and picnics in the local park. Despite the intention that neighborhood parks be for one and all, not enough of us are using them to their advantage. In fact, visit your local park during any given hour and you’re likely to be one of just 20 people there, a new study found.

Not as much is known about how many of us use our parks compared with other community resources, like fire departments or libraries, for example. Over the spring and summer of 2014, the Rand Corporation set out to change that by compiling a national snapshot of public park use. Observations of 25 parks within 174 cities showed who’s using our country’s parks the most. Not only do they have the potential to draw a community together, neighborhood parks are instrumental in providing opportunities for a community’s residents to fulfill, at no cost, their recommended time engaged in  physical activity — 60 minutes/day for kids and teens and 150 minutes/week for adults.

Regardless of city, neighborhood parks attract mainly kids and teens, and more boys than girls occupy their swings and ball fields, say RAND Corporation researchers. Also adults and seniors without children are less likely to be found walking beneath the trees or comfortably chatting at benches.

“Parks are important for many reasons,” Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, lead study author, told Medical Daily, explaining that her new study focused on how parks might improve people’s health. “They serve as settings for physical activity — either as a destination that people can walk to (and get exercise by doing that), or as a place where they can engage in more activity.” Most of us move around more when we are outdoors, she explained. “Parks are also places for social interactions and could potentially reduce isolation.”

There are more than 108,000 public parks nationwide, which are commonly categorized based on their size, ranging from the smallest (those under 2 acres) to the largest. Though pocket parks may be quaint and charming, mid-sized neighborhood parks really are the backbone of the system. Between 2 and 20 acres, these community parks typically provide places for play like swing sets and basketball courts and spots to gather like picnic tables and benches.

For the study, the researchers focused exclusively on neighborhood parks in cities with 100,000 or more residents. On sunny days, the researchers documented the number of occupants, adding age, gender, and activities to the record. (No, they did not spy from behind trees.) The team also interviewed senior administrators from the park systems to hear their thoughts.

They discovered that nationwide the typical neighborhood park, covering nearly 9 acres of ground, averaged 20 users per hour for a total of 1,533 hours of weekly use overall. Though seniors represent 20 percent of the general population, they made up just 4 percent of park visitors. Walking loops were popular among seniors; loops and gymnasiums (including fitness zones and exercise areas) each generated 221 hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

“One of the things we know about recreational activity is people seek out aesthetically pleasing places,” Dr. James F. Sallis, a professor at UC San Diego, told Medical Daily, adding “a park that has a stark look is not that attractive.” The reason it is important to entice seniors into parks is “older adults get the most dramatic and immediate health benefits from being active.” Naturally, this would save on health care costs.

According to both Sallis and Cohen, several factors are associated with higher levels of park use. “Park size, having a greater number of facilities in the park, the park being located in a neighborhood that has higher population density or is wealthier, the number of supervised activities/programs offered in the park, and the presence of marketing and outreach efforts, like banners and posters,” Cohen said.

Specifically, supervised programs and marketing linked to 37 percent and 63 percent, respectively, more hours of physical activity per week in parks. In low-income neighborhoods, parks were used less than in high-income neighborhoods, largely explained by fewer supervised activities and outreach efforts.

From interviews, the researchers also learned none of the park administrators routinely measured park use, other than tracking whether people registered for sports leagues or specific programs.

Cohen observes few parks offering special activities or events for seniors. “Many parks are not designed to meet the needs of seniors,” she said, explaining few parks have seating areas, though she added, “It is also likely that health issues and limitations in mobility may reduce park use by seniors.”

Given limited community budgets, Cohen noted that it’s difficult to find any no-cost improvements (given that time is money). That said, creating a walking path is relatively inexpensive and would likely boost park use.  

Parks could partner with other organizations to help provide more programming and activities in parks,” she said, adding that a little social media to market parks and events might be helpful as well.

“The more people in parks, the safer parks will be and that will attract more people to them,” Sallis said.

Source: Cohen DA, Han B, Nagel CJ, et al. The First National Study of Neighborhood Parks: Implications for Physical Activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2016.