Presentation at the 2007 Active Living Research Annual Conference
African Americans are more likely than Whites to be overweight or obese (NIH, 2006). They also have a higher risk of almost all diet and fitness related diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, obesity and cancer. While these risks can be reduced with diet and exercise, private facilities are frequently inaccessible to African Americans who average significantly lower salaries than Whites (Census, 2004). Given these challenges, this study investigates the ability of free, accessible parks to reduce the incidence of chronic disease through physical activity facilitation.
The current study relies on an ecological model of human behavior used frequently by researchers seeking to uncover relationships between aspects of the physical environment and physical activity behavior (e.g. Epstein, 1998; Sallis & Owen, 1997). A key consideration in ecological models is the social and physical environment in which activity occurs. The tenets of this theory, together with previous findings linking environmental components to increased physical activity (Sallis, Bauman & Pratt, 1998; Sallis, Conway, Prochaska, McKenzie, Marshal, & Brown, 2001), suggest that the physical surroundings of local parks can affect visitor behavior. The aim of the study, therefore, is to investigate visitor behavior among African Americans and the importance of controllable site components (environmental factors which can be provided for by city officials) for physically active recreation.
The purpose of the current study is to understand the relationship of controllable site components and the intensity of recreation activities undertaken at park sites. The effect of three specific site components, including the relationship of permanent site improvements, participation in organized recreation, and participation in supervised park activities, on the achievement of moderate to vigorous exertion by African Americans was investigated.
Following the protocol used in the RAND PARKS study (2005), the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC) was used to evaluate physical activity undertaken at four parks in eastern North Carolina. Observations were made by two trained researchers within 1-3 target areas of each park during four time intervals (morning, lunch, afternoon, and evening) across all seven days of the week. A total of 560 scans led to the observation of the activities of 2,113 park visitors.
Data was analyzed in three stages. First, participation frequency, intensity, and modes were described using descriptive statistics and cross tabs. Second, ordinary least squares regression was undertaken to understand the contribution of controllable site components to participation in recommended physical activities. For the regression, activity intensity (coded as sedentary, walking/moderate, or vigorous) served as the dependent variable while dichotomous independent variables included use of permanent site improvements, participation in organized recreation, and participation in supervised activities. In the third stage of analysis, the probability of African Americans’ participation in physically active recreation was described for each of the three site components.
Momentary sampling scans allowed observation of 2,113 park visitors, 811 (38%) of whom were African American. This is slightly higher than their proportion in the local population (34%). Similar to the majority of park visitors who were White (X2 = 43.20, p = .01), the five most frequently observed activities for African Americans were sitting, tennis, climbing/sliding, fishing, and walking. Participation by African Americans in moderate/vigorous activity (61.2%) was also equal to the intensity of Whites (X2 = 89.31, p = .003). Regression analysis further indicated that 63.5% of the variance in intensity could be explained by the three environmental variables. Follow up analyses showed that when African Americans used improvements, they engaged in moderate/vigorous activity 92% of the time, while participation in organized or supervised activities resulted in recommended intensities 61% and 52% of the time, respectively. A detailed breakdown of use patterns among sub-groups will also be discussed.
African Americans are more likely to be overweight and less likely to be able to afford health insurance (Census, 2000) which suggests a greater need for preventive health care. Study findings demonstrate the potential for park spaces to play an important role in the provision of preventive health care through physical activity for African Americans. While the current study indicates that built features and structured recreation settings are associated with increased intensity of physical activity, continued research to identify the contribution of individual site improvements is warranted. Findings from this and future studies could facilitate interventions by government officials, thereby enhancing the health of local African Americans. For government officials who are mandated to meet resident needs, the provision of well-equipped parks is absolutely essential to the well-being of racially and economically diverse communities.