Get Healthy! Get Outside!

by Cyndy McKone
Peoria Park District

Park and recreation agencies create healthy communities and enhance the physical environments in which we live.

Get dirty! Get outside! is a tagline Peoria Zoo staff devised to promote the Zoo’s new natural play area. But a more appropriate slogan would be: Get Healthy! Get Outside! (Side benefit… you don’t really have to get dirty!)

More and more studies are confirming that access to greenspace, parks and trails is one of society’s greatest contributions to improving our quality of life. According to information recently released by the National Parks and Recreation Association (NRPA), public park and recreation agencies create healthy communities and play a fundamental role in enhancing the physical environments in which we live. Through facilities, outdoor settings and services provided, they support good health for people of all abilities, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. They foster change through collaborative programs and policies that reach a vast population to:

  • Help reduce obesity and incidence of chronic disease by providing opportunities to increase rigorous physical activity in a variety of forms;
  • Provide a connection to nature, which studies demonstrate relieves stress levels, tightens interpersonal relationships and improves mental health;
  • Aid in reducing hunger and increasing access to nutritious food options; and
  • Foster overall wellness and healthful habits, such as becoming tobacco-free and engaging in enrichment opportunities that add balance to life.

Additional facts gathered by the NRPA show that parks have a dramatic impact on children:

  • Children who live within two-thirds of a mile from a park with a playground are five times more likely to be a healthy weight. Time spent outside leads to higher levels of physical activity in children.
  • A 20-minute walk in a park or other natural area can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder focus better.
  • Active children show more brain activity, and they are 20-percent more likely to earn an A in English or math.
  • Youth living in neighborhoods with multiple recreation and park facilities are more likely to be active five times a week, compared to young people who don’t have the same access.

Simply put, public parks and recreational facilities are the gateways to a healthier America—and they ensure that communities are truly livable.

Prescriptions for Nature
Today, medical care providers throughout the United States are prescribing outdoor activities to their patients. For example, a pediatrician in Santa Clara, California has been writing “nature prescriptions,” advising children 12 and younger to get outside for activity—writing 135 such prescriptions over a two-month period. In another case, an Ohio-based cardiologist created a “Walk with the Doctor” program in 2005, which has since been replicated by nearly 250 doctors across the country.

Locally, two healthcare professionals, Kim Keenan and Denise Urycki, were at the forefront of this movement when they cofounded gitm (Gifts in the Moment) Foundation’s Nature Prescription Program in 2012. This program opens up a dialogue between the medical community and their patients regarding sedentary lifestyles, exercise and the benefits of outdoor, unstructured play. Patients might get a prescription to walk 20 minutes a day, hike a certain trail once a week, or go biking on local trails. Medical providers can download a “Nature Prescription Tool Kit” at believegitm.com and place an order for Nature Prescription Pads at gitm@mtco.com.

An Active Trail System
While agencies like the Peoria Park District provide a multitude of facilities and parks for community members to get outside and exercise, the District also supports active lifestyles with a unique trail system. The Peoria Park District’s 50.6 miles of trails range from paved, level walkways like the one at Franciscan Recreation Complex to rough, steep hiking trails like the Illinois River Bluff Trail. The system also includes seven miles of nature trails at Forest Park Nature Center. The difficulty of each course is outlined in the Peoria Park District’s seasonal Playbook.

Bicyclists can enjoy the 13-mile Rock Island Greenway, which connects the State of Illinois’ Rock Island Trail to the north and the River Trail of Illinois to the southeast. Completion of the trail bridge across Knoxville Avenue in 2014 has made accessing the trails easier than ever.

As public awareness of the benefits of parks and trails increases, usage of the trails has risen dramatically as well. According to Mike Miller, Supervisor of Environmental and Interpretive Services at the Peoria Park District, “It’s no longer just the birdwatcher on the trails. Walking and hiking have become more of our daily routine. Twenty-five years ago, if there was no programming on Sundays at Forest Park Nature Center, there would be very few people using the trail. Now, on a nice Sunday afternoon, the trails are bustling.”

Environmental Leadership
In addition to providing opportunities to get outside, maintain a healthy lifestyle and enjoy nature, parks also play a key role in supporting a healthy environment. Parks are critical in maintaining healthy ecosystems, providing clean water and clean air, and enabling conservation of land and water resources. Long recognized as a leader in conservation, the Peoria Park District serves as both a park district and a forest preserve district, committing resources to prescribed burns, removal of invasive plant species, prevention of soil erosion, and reduction of stormwater retention for well over 25 years.

The District actively manages 1,600 of its 4,000 acres of conservation land as a nature preserve, and if forests are not maintained, extensive erosion will occur. The District’s efforts to contain soil erosion have saved hundreds of thousands of tons of silt from washing into the Illinois River… approximately 80 tons per acre per year.

Over the years, the Park District’s use of green technologies in our parks and facilities has greatly increased. With nearly 97 percent of its total land holdings being pervious surface, runoff is minimal, and goes even further as this valuable parkland intakes water from surrounding watersheds. In addition, our trees transpire water vapor on a daily basis. Just one mature, healthy tree produces around 450 pounds of oxygen over its growing season—enough to keep one adult breathing for one year. Parks maximize natural systems and create environments that are not only healthy, but productive as well.

The Peoria Park District is a leader in central Illinois through its contributions to the health, safety and wellness of our citizens by providing oxygen, absorbing air and water pollutants, cooling the environment, and providing the mental, physical and social health benefits that would otherwise be missing from our community. iBi

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