Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health

Recreation and Parks – Are They America’s Best Health Value?

by Andrew J. Mowen, Ph.D.

Ken Powell

Community-based park and recreation services reach Americans from all walks of life and serve as a key partner in promoting physical activity and health. Characteristics of the park and recreation system that contribute to the nation’s health include its scope and widespread availability, its relative cost vs. return on the health investment achieved, and the nature of the physical activities it provides. 

In terms of its scope, the park and recreation system includes a wide range of close-to-home facilities and services available at no or low cost to most Americans. More than 108,000 outdoor public park and recreation facilities, 65,000 indoor public facilities, and 36,000 privately-operated fitness centers exist across the country, with at least one facility operating in almost every community.  In terms of cost, many recreation centers and parks offer their services to community residents at no or low cost.  The cost to taxpayers is also low; the average annual per person tax expenditure on local recreation and park services is $78/year – less than 25 cents per day.  Finally, recreation services and parks offer forms of physical activity that people enjoy – sport, leisure and recreation activities. These types of activities are more likely than “exercise” to be sustained across the lifespan – not just during childhood and adolescence.

Despite its promise, the recreation and parks system could do more to promote physical activity.  While millions of Americans use these services, even millions more could use them to be more physically active.  Parks and recreation is working to develop a health and fitness focus and to create programs, policies, and capital investments that will make it more appealing and accessible to a broader population.  These efforts include increasing access to and connecting parks, trails, and facilities, building physical activity features that people want to use, offering innovative programs that incorporate physical activity, educating people about the health benefits of active park use, and developing policies that promote shared use of facilities..

Working in cooperation with the other sectors, the National Physical Activity Plan calls for the Community Recreation, Fitness, and Parks Sector to prioritize five strategies: 1) improve availability of and access to safe, clean, and affordable community recreation, fitness, and parks facilities, 2) enhance existing resources and develop new resources, 3) recruit and train a diverse cadre of recreation, parks, and fitness leaders, staff, and volunteers, 4) advocate for increased and sustainable funding and resources to support recreation services and parks, and 5) improve monitoring and evaluation of participation in community-based physical activity programs.

The last two strategies are critical and  are the key to achieving the first three.  The capacity of recreation services and parks to provide physical activity opportunities lies within the local governmental or non-profit sphere.  Over the past decade, however, capital and operational expenditures on these services have declined significantly, particularly since the peak of the Great Recession in 2008.  In the years that followed, expenditures on local park and recreation services declined more dramatically than other “mandatory” services (e.g., police, fire, education, and hospitals/health care).  And although spending on education, health care, and police services is recovering, public funding of recreation and park services has not bounced back or increased at the same pace.  While Americans understand the value of recreation and parks to their personal health (and to the overall health care system), local officials often find it difficult to justify prioritizing investments in the recreation and parks sector.  The reality is that, for local decision makers, recreation and parks are important, but not at the cost of other community priorities. 

To enhance the impact of recreation and parks on physical activity at the national level, perhaps a hybrid funding model is necessary– one that combines public funding with funding from philanthropic foundation investments and more systematic funding from the health industry.  Such funding could be provided by health insurance providers, employers, or through accountable care organizations. The advent of accountable care organizations, in particular, might provide a business incentive to invest in social services such as parks as a means to improve patient outcomes.  A portion of existing local health expenditures could also be directed to recreation programs as well as park infrastructure investments.  Whether these policy changes would close the gap of shrinking public investment remains an open question.  Establishing and protecting such funding mechanisms will take significant advocacy and require a much more compelling evidence base than currently exists.  These suggestions are not to argue that public funding shouldn’t be maintained or even increased, but rather serve as a pragmatic assessment based on the current state of parks and recreation and efforts to expand the near-term impact of recreation and parks on physical activity. 

Park and recreation services hold great potential for helping Americans become more physically active.  To effectively curb the nation’s sedentary lifestyle, increased investment in park infrastructure, recreation programs, and people (both trained, paid staff and volunteers) is needed.  The scientific community must also do its part and demonstrate whether (and how) recreation and parks provide cost-effective solutions to improve health outcomes. Alliances with the other sectors of the National Physical Activity Plan are crucial given the power of leveraging and connecting with shared community assets. 

Are recreation and parks America’s best health value?  I think so, but that value could be expanded.  Even modest investments in these services could yield significant health dividends nationally at a cost that pales in comparison to the nation’s current health expenditures.


Andrew Mowen, Ph.D. - Dr. Mowen is a Professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at The Pennsylvania State University.  He began his career as the Manager of Research for Cleveland Metroparks.  His research focuses on the contribution of parks and protected areas in shaping a range of individual and community outcomes.  Current research projects assess the impact of urban park revitalization projects on health and community cohesion as well as local officials’ perceptions of park and recreation services.  Dr. Mowen enjoys (in no particular order) bicycling, paddleboarding, hiking, fishing, campfires, and craft beer.


View all commentaries