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Volume 30
Number 2
Fall 2013
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A shuttle bus service at Zion National Park Designing Parks for Human Health Benefits
Park health resources: Benefits, values, and implications

By Jennifer M. Thomsen, Robert B. Powell, and Diana Allen
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
The link between parks and human health
Managing park resources as health resources
Promoting healthier parks for healthier people
About the authors
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Obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mental illness have reached alarming proportions among children and adults in the United States. For example, approximately 36% of adults are considered obese, 10% have diabetes, and 25% suffer from some form of mental illness (CDC 2013). These chronic diseases reduce quality of life and cause early mortality (Hyde 2011). To combat these public health challenges, many health professionals promote developing additional recreational programs and infrastructure, such as parks, to increase physical activity (WHO 2008; NPC 2011) and as a form of preventive medicine (Frumkin and Louv 2007). Generally these parks are part of local communities’ infrastructure, but all parks and public lands, no matter their location, potentially could serve as part of a unified system of health resources for the public.

One effort to enhance and promote the use of parks as health resources is the Healthy Parks Healthy People (HPHP) program, which promotes proactive and healthy activities as part of the public health and medical care delivery systems worldwide. In the United States, the Healthy Parks Healthy People movement also works to increase society’s recognition of parks and protected areas (including state, local, and regional park systems) as places for the promotion of physical and mental health and social well-being. Aligned with these HPHP tenets, NPS director Jonathan Jarvis in the “Call to Action” emphasized the need to “expand the health community’s use of parks as a healing tool and increase citizens’ recognition of the value of parks to improve health and well-being and encourage park visitors to make healthy lifestyle choices” (NPS 2012). To address these needs, the National Park Service established the Health and Wellness Executive Steering Committee in 2010 to initiate steps for HPHP’s integration in the United States and “for park lands to take their rightful place in creating a healthy and civil society” (NPS Health and Wellness Executive Steering Committee 2011, p. 8). The committee’s objectives were twofold: (1) explore the role of the National Park Service in promoting the health and well-being of the nation, and (2) develop a strategy to support health promotion. To advance their role in enhancing public health, the National Park Service hosted the HPHP U.S. summit in 2011, developed a strategic action plan, will host the Second International HPHP Congress, and will contribute to the Sixth World Parks Congress with a health and wellness component.

The NPS “Call to Action” and the HPHP U.S. movement illuminate the important role that national parks play in enhancing human health by offering recreational opportunities and by promoting healthier lifestyle choices. For nearly 100 years, society has assumed that national parks have contributed to human health and well-being by protecting these places that inspire physical activity and promote mental health (Wexler 2004). However, members in the health community are increasingly calling on parks to provide more tangible ways of increasing healthy activities and behaviors (Frumkin 2001; St Leger 2003). So what strategies can NPS managers use to maximize visitors’ health benefits? This article seeks to answer this question and to provide a set of case studies and examples that illustrate how the National Park System can inspire the American public to enjoy resources of the national parks and derive health benefits.

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This page updated:  13 January 2014

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