Everywhere you look there are symptoms of sedentary living and unhealthy choices that negatively affect communities–both physically and fiscally. Park and recreation departments can play a major role in offsetting this epidemic. Our business revolves around motivating people to be active and presenting a smorgasbord of healthy choices so they stay active.
“Fitness is a way of life; it’s not confined to what a child does on the soccer field or an adult does in the gym,” says Virginia’s Arlington County Chair Walter J. Tejada. “Fitness comes from consistently making healthy choices–being active, eating well, getting proper sleep, [and] choosing activities that involve flexibility, coordination, endurance and strength.”
The reasons for inactivity are more complex than residents merely not having enough time to exercise or not knowing the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy choice. To really effect change, communities need to develop a culture in which being healthy and fit is a way of life for people of all ages and abilities.
Changing community culture sounds difficult. “But not impossible,” adds Tejada. “Imagine a community in which being healthy and fit is good business; workplaces make time during the workday for employees to go for a jog or play a pick-up game of basketball, and recognize employees and their families for getting and staying healthy. And communities where children, their families and neighbors take time to play, walk, or bike together through the parks and on fields. Imagine a community of caring that ensures elders, persons with physical and developmental disabilities and youth have plentiful opportunities to engage in healthy and fun exercise. That’s the culture change we’re aiming for.”
Arlington County is in its second year of a mission to develop a culture of fitness, basing its approach on feedback from community dialogue. Successful strategies must approach the problem from various angles:
The following are some tips to get your community moving in the right direction toward fitness:
Maximize existing opportunities to promote physical activity. Most communities have a plethora of options for residents to be active, including fitness centers, trails, clubs and classes. Yet, in most cases, these opportunities compete. Instead, the model should be changed to teaming resources. No one entity can do it all for everyone. Various fitness options, audiences and approaches in the community should be delineated and then marketed to steer people to the right fit. Fitness is not a one-size-fits-all program.
“View fitness activities as a rainbow … with thousands of colors or ways for people of varying abilities and interests to get fit,” says Dinesh Tiwari, Arlington’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. “Arlington has state-of-the-art sports facilities, turf and grass fields, paved and unpaved trails, playgrounds, a skate park, spray parks, an outdoor climbing wall and real rocks to climb. The trick is to have such a wonderful mix of activities that there is something for everyone because just as there are many colors in the rainbow, there are many ways to get active, and no one way is better than the other.”
In Arlington County, existing fitness, sports and wellness nonprofits, for-profits and private groups that serve county residents were invited to become FitArlington partners. Basically, these partners share marketing opportunities (as appropriate) to expand their reach. They post partner flyers, list events, and even provide incentives and prizes to help the community. For example, by giving a free one-month membership to the winners of the FitArlington Health & Wealth Challenge, The Energy Club got its name out in front of potential customers. Another benefit of being a partner is the use of the FitArlington logo, which not only unites popular fitness programs but also nudges the community to think outside the box–ballroom dancing and nature hikes are branded FitArlington.
Provide incentives and recognition for physical activity. Studies show people are more likely to continue an exercise program if they have a way to record or track what they do, can share their success with others, and receive recognition or rewards. There are a number of inexpensive incentive programs, such as the President’s Challenge (www.fitness.gov) or Team Fitness League (www.TeamFitnessLeague.com). These can be personalized for a community, or a department can create something on its own. With the help of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the county developed a FitArlington Health & Wealth Challenge in January 2008 to encourage residents to take steps to improve physical fitness (such as exercising and eating well), and fiscal fitness (such as saving change and opening a savings account). Challenge teams were developed, goals were set, and awards were earned (many of which were donations from partners to advance awareness as well as to support participants.)
Empower people to be fit. If you look at the demographics of fit individuals, they are most likely to be upper-middle class, well-educated professionals. Direct marketing is needed to ensure that everyone has access to fitness programs. Are classes and center promotions written in the language of the community? Every FitArlington flyer has a call-to-action in Spanish, as 15 percent of the residents are Latino. Do you promote a fee-reduction policy for fitness classes, centers and leagues? Don’t wait for the community to ask if there are discounts for low-income people; shout it out. And don’t forget to aggressively market free stuff. Do you have maps of community trails to hand out? WalkArlington, another partner in the program, developed 17 different walkabouts–self-guided tours that help get the community active while promoting neighborhoods at the same time. There are also regularly scheduled, free walkabouts led by community leaders.
Another simple strategy to empower people is the Take the Stairs campaign. Arlington County developed a series of signs in both English and Spanish, and posted them at elevators and online. More than 50 community groups and property managers also use the signs to get people active–now that’s a culture change!
Promote models for active living. Most people are aware of the benefits of exercise, but making it a part of their lives is a different story. By encouraging people to make fitness connections, you will be helping them develop and stay with a fit lifestyle.
For example, a group of FitArlington Partners developed a Marine Corps Marathon Training Program. The race officials, a partner in the program, provided free numbers to its 10K and marathon events. Running clubs and stores that were partners provided free training to potential racers, and the county developed a community blog to share the progress (and pain) of the group. With all of the support, the runners said they had an incredible experience.
Facilitate a community design for active living. In developing park and recreation facilities, be mindful of pedestrian and bike access. Encouraging these modes of transportation helps not only to create a fit community, but also a healthier environment.
Foster community policy that advances active living. Park and recreation agencies have been in the business of helping communities get fit for many years. However, if all it took was having the programs and services, all communities would be fit. Local governments can develop policies that support health. Do building permits require bike racks? Do new roads have easements for pedestrians? Is smoking permitted in buildings, near buildings or even on fields?
Not every goal is easily attainable. One goal set by Arlington leaders was to install vending machines with healthy snacks in the facilities, but first was the argument about what defines healthy snacks. Then there was a struggle to find manufacturers and vendors who sell healthy snacks, and to make enough of a profit to keep the machines.
Some jurisdictions have been able to change policy. Healthy Kids for Action, a national organization, implemented a pilot program across the country, and increased awareness of the poor quality of foods offered in school vending machines.
Even if you can’t make big changes now, small steps can be taken. Arlington County now plans to work with its vendors to consistently offer healthier products on the top rows in every machine.
Susan Kalish worked in and around parks and recreation in a variety of capacities, including volunteer soccer coach, chair of the Fairfax City (Va.) Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, director of communications for the National Recreation and Park Association and currently director of marketing and communications at Arlington County (Va.) Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. She can be reached at email@example.com.