empty park bench
Senior Health

Parks Are Seldom Used by Older People

Neighborhood parks across the United States are geared primarily toward younger people, limiting their use by adults and seniors, but surprisingly attract fewer female youth as well, according to a RAND Corporation study that offers the first national examination of parks, what they offer, who uses them and how they are used. The study was published in May 2016 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A release from RAND explains that although it is critically important for adults and seniors to engage in physical activity, most neighborhood parks have few programmed activities targeted to those groups. Adding enhancements such as walking loops and classes geared toward older people could attract many more older users to the parks. The study also found a female gender gap in park use that was most pronounced among children and teens, with females representing only 40 percent of children and 35 percent of teens observed. In addition females of all ages were less likely to be playing any organized sports and were more sedentary than males.

The release quotes Dr. Deborah Cohen, the study’s lead author and a senior natural scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, as saying, “Our nation’s public parks have much unmet potential to be a center of physical activity for adults, older Americans and females. It appears possible to increase physical activity among adults, seniors and females by making modest investments in facilities and programming.”

More than 9,000 park and recreation departments manage more than 108,000 public parks and 65,000 indoor facilities across the United States.

Neighborhood parks are the backbone of the system, with each location providing diverse facilities such as playgrounds, picnic tables, basketball courts, green space and shade trees. Such parks typically are 2 acres to 20 acres in size and are intended to serve residents living within a 1-mile radius.

The RAND study, the first to compile a national snapshot of public park use, sent observers into 174 neighborhood parks in 25 cities with 100,000 or more residents during the spring and summer of 2014 to document how people used neighborhood parks. They applied methods developed for the study to count users, document characteristics such as age and gender, and record activities, including whether users were engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

While there was much variation among the locations studied, the results consistently showed that neighborhood park use was especially low among adults, seniors and younger females.

The facilities that generated the most physical activity for adults and seniors were walking loops. Gymnasiums, fitness zones and exercise areas generated the next highest amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for adults and seniors.