Researchers Take Scientific Approach to Promoting Healthy Lifestyles

Dominican researchers are working with the National Park Service (NPS) on a nationwide project designed to determine how to encourage the public to use National Park lands for physical activity.

The NPS has selected seven pilot parks to serve as models for the incorporation of healthy recreational activities into American lifestyles. Point Reyes National Seashore was chosen as one of four “urban” parks, along with Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio), Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (Maryland), and Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (Florida). In addition, surveys will be conducted at three “destination” parks: Sitka National Historical Park (Alaska), Zion National Park (Utah), and Acadia National Park (Maine).

The Dominican researchers, along with their counterparts at the other pilot parks, are taking a scientific approach to promoting the health benefits of the great outdoors. Over the past six months, a nationwide team of academicians and practitioners from the fields of public health, leisure science, psychology, biology, and statistics has created protocols and measures for evaluating the value of health benefits associated with National Parks.

“To date, empirical data is lacking that quantifies and validates the value of National Parks in promoting and providing for active lifestyles through recreational activities,” noted Dr. Diara Spain, assistant professor of biology at Dominican and co-principal investigator on the Point Reyes study.

Dominican is working with Point Reyes National Seashore, the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, and Healthy Marin Partnership on the project.

Earlier this summer, Dominican faculty and students collected baseline data on health and recreation activities from park visitors during weekends in June and July. This data was recorded using trail intercept surveys with questions focusing on the type, duration, and frequency of physical activity as well as the positive and negative factors associated with physical activity. The surveys were taken by visitors using Bear Valley Trail and Limantour Beach Trail.

 Point Reyes National Seashore and Healthy Marin Partnership currently are promoting the recreational activities available to park visitors. One goal is to promote the park, not just as a destination, but also as an area where local residents can visit as part of their fitness plan.

“We want to let people know how the trail they're hiking/biking on is also benefiting their health,” said John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education at Point Reyes National Seashore.

An on-going media campaign encourages the public to include physical activity such as walking or cycling in their visit to the park. Point Reyes National Seashore has 150 miles of hiking trails and some 80 miles of walkable coastline. Brochures promoting the physical – as well as mental – benefits of a visit to the park soon will be distributed throughout Marin.

This fall,  the Dominican team will conduct post-intervention surveys to measure the effectiveness of the physical activity information campaign.

The Dominican team will analyze the data this fall and will send a report to NPS officials in December. In 2008, a final synthesis report will be prepared by St. Louis University to summarize results both quantitatively and qualitatively across the seven pilot parks. The results will be used by the NPS to develop a plan for implementing the HealthierUS Initiative in the National Park system.

Posted September 5, 2007