Access to places for safe physical activity on the rise

By Ana B. Ibarra

Physical activity among adults and teens is on the rise, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The State Indicator Report on Physical Activity 2014 revealed that 54.5 percent of youths in the country have access to parks or playground areas, recreation centers, community centers, boys’ and girls’ clubs and walking paths or sidewalks. Although this means that more than half of U.S families live in neighborhoods that support physical activity, the CDC states there is still more that can be done to increase the percentage.

The report showed that only 19.1 percent of adults in California engage in none leisure-time physical activity; lower than the national average of 25.4. The report also showed that 3.8 percent of adults in the state usually bike or walk to work; the national average was recorded at 3.4 percent. The percent of the state population that live within half a mile of a park is 58.3.

According to the report, youths in neighborhoods with access to playgrounds and recreational facilities are more active and are less likely to be overweight.

Investments in areas for physical activity may prove beneficial in Merced County where 40.9 percent of the children are overweight, and three out of four adults are overweight, according to the county’s public health department.

The report provided three strategies that can help increase physical activity in communities. One is to create or enhance access to safe places for exercise.

Claudia Corchado, the Health Services Program manager at Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said that how physically active a community is depends greatly on how safe people feel in their surroundings.

“Environment really does have an impact on our health,” Corchado said. “If you don’t feel safe outside, then you probably won’t go out for a walk, and you definitely won’t let your kids go outside and play. So then what happens is that kids stay indoors, watching TV and probably eating some unhealthy snacks.”

Corchado said the program is working with school districts in the county on the joint use of facilities for the purpose of physical activity. If school grounds are open for everyone outside of normal school hours, then more people would have access to safe spaces where they can exercise, Corchado explained.

“We are currently working with Farmdale Elementary in south Merced, Calif., and they’ve been a wonderful partner because they realize that the school belongs to the community,” she said. “(School officials) opened the doors to the school and we’ve seen hundreds of people make use of the facility for physical activity. We definitely want to replicate this.”

Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Public Health Department, said staff is in talks with schools in the Beachwood-Franklin, Calif. area for a similar opportunity.

A second strategy suggested to help youth become more active is enhancing physical education in schools and child-care settings. The report states that children and adolescents should participate in 60 minutes of physical activity every day. For many children in the area, recess and P.E. classes are the only opportunity they have to engage in any exercise, Corchado said.

The third proposed strategy is to design and maintain streets that are safe enough for pedestrians. Earlier this month, Merced County officials unveiled draft plans for community projects that aim to improve school routes in the Planada and Beachwood-Franklin, Calif. areas. Planning is still in the early stage, but more concrete proposals on road improvements are expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors in the fall.

“Sometimes people overlook that the easiest way for children to engage in physical activity is to have them walk to school,” Corchado said. “The problem is that some areas don’t have sidewalks, crossing lights, or signs that show you’re entering a school zone.”

In addition, the Merced County Public Health Department has worked alongside the Winton School District and the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit, in conducting a walkability assessment to take a look at how roads can be improved for residents in that area.

Elected officials in Merced also have taken initiative in addressing the importance of physical activity. Last month, Mayor Stan Thurston and the city of Merced were recognized for their involvement in the Let’s Move! campaign, a nationwide effort to reduce childhood obesity.

According to the CDC, being physically active can help Americans live longer and have a lower risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, some cancers, and obesity.

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