Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Go out and play!: The role of parks in health

It should be no surprise that attendees at a Wednesday session on the role of parks in healthography didn’t sit still.

Audience members got out of their seats and gathered around a table of maps, giving input on how to improve a local park in Miami-Dade County, Florida, during a session on “The Role of Parks in Healthography: The Unique Contribution of Our Nation’s Greatest Resource to Health and Wellbeing."

Session presentations focused on improving and expanding parks and recreation spaces and programs via partnerships with the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department and the University of Miami.

Attendees were asked to give their input about Marva Y. Bannerman Park, a park surrounded my multiple schools and located in one of the county’s low-income neighborhoods.

Suggestions included planting more trees, adding more street lighting to reduce crime, and building a playground or splash pad for younger children. One idea was to have an “edible forest” garden with nutrition educational labels for certain plants.

“The ideas that come out of this group today will be taken back to the people planning this park,” said Joanna Lombard, a professor of architecture at the University of Miami.

Presenters also looked at the impact of access to recreational spaces on people with the poorest health. A study of 250,000 Medicare beneficiaries ages 65 and older in Miami-Dade County, found that when comparing a low level of green spaces to a higher level of green spaces, there was a 15 percent difference in the prevalence of diabetes and a 13 percent difference in prevalence of hypertension in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We believe these are evidence that having more greenery in your environment may be beneficial by promoting opportunities for physical activity and possibly just time spent outdoors,” said session presenter Scott Brown, a research assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “South Florida is a subtropical climate, so you need shade trees to encourage people to spend time outside.”

The power of access to green space and recreation in improving health is evident in the Fit2Play program, an ongoing Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department initiative to get local kids more physically active.

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine partnered with Miami’s parks department to see how effective the program was in keeping kids healthy. The university brought in its team of pediatric specialists to train parks department field staff in measuring the kids for data on blood pressure, waist and hip circumference and more.

Since 2010, more than 760 kids who participated in Fit2Play improved across the board in lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular fitness and increasing their knowledge about health and wellness, such as nutrition, said Sarah Messiah, a Miller School of Medicine research associate professor.

“Our kids who started the program obese for their age and gender actually lost weight throughout the school year,” Messiah said. “The kids who started normal weight, stayed normal weight. That’s just as important to prevent those kids that come in normal from gaining weight.”

— N.M.

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