Psst! Wanna know a secret? Parks are good for your health!
Yep, that's the truth. You thought they were just for getting away from the job and enjoying some down-time sitting on a bench watching squirrels or eating in the lodge dining room?
All those hiking trails in the parks, all those lakes and rivers, all those cross-country ski and snowshoeing options? They exist for YOU. Spend time recreating on 'em and you'll improve your health.
Who would have thought? I mean, it took the National Park System Advisory Board Committee on Health and Recreation better than a year to make that connection. During that timespan the committee members thumbed through a 1996 Surgeon General's report that made the connection between physical activity and the related health benefits. And they read the Outdoor Industry Association's 2004 report that noted that a majority of Americans prefer human-powered outdoor activities.
After that research, all they had left to do was determine how parks might play a role in improving your health through physical activity.
Fortunately, NPS Director Fran Mainella spread the good news today during an appearance at the Great Outdoors Week festivities in Washington, D.C.
Now, just because Fran and her colleagues in Washington have figured out that hiking, biking, paddling, jogging, skiing and mountain biking in the parks are all good for you, they're not going to rush out and outline exactly how you might enjoy those activities. Nooooo, we need some pilot projects to fully understand the connection and work out the kinks in any recreation programs the parks might opt to provide.
"Before considering any full-scale service-wide initiative, the NPS should first implement and evaluate a set of pilot projects," the committee reported to Fran. "The implementation and evaluation of health and recreation pilot park initiatives (one per region) can help the NPS further explore and understand the opportunities to incorporate a culture of health and wellness into existing recreational activities that are widely accepted in the national parks. Pilot parks can serve as models for encouraging healthful participation in the outdoors."
(I am not making this up. You can find the press release touting this breakthrough here and there's a link at the bottom taking you to the full report.)
Some of the pilot projects are obvious. I mean, at Cuyahoga Valley National Park the committee recommends walking. (I guess no one told the committee about the mountain-biking pilot project ongoing in Cuyahoga). Walking also is suggested at Sitka National Historical Park, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (which also was recognized for cycling), Point Reyes National Seashore (which also got a nod for biking and paddling), Zion and Acadia (why, with all its miles of carriage paths for biking Acadia is not studying cycling I'll never figure out).
Oh, the folks at Zion also have been asked to demonstrate the benefits of cycling. I wonder if the committee members have ever been to Zion? I mean, there are some great climbing routes, and the hiking can't be beat, but I wouldn't pack my bike for a vacation there. There is the Parus Trail, which winds almost 2 miles between the park's Visitors Center and Canyon Junction, but that's not much of a workout. And you can ride your bike along the Zion Canyon Drive, but you'll have to share the narrow pavement with shuttle buses and anyone who drives their car to Zion Lodge.
I wonder if the committee considered safety issues in recommending that Zion promote cycling, since there are no bike lanes that run along the Zion Canyon Drive, and you can't ride your bike through the tunnels on the east side of the park.
Oh well, never mind. The main thing is realizing that parks are good for your health. Fran worried about that last year when she wrote "Doing Business in the 21st Century," which "recognizes the critical responsibility of the NPS to provide appropriate outdoor recreation and to contribute to the physical and mental well-being of all Americans by promoting a seamless network of parks and continuing to link ongoing recreation opportunities at national parks to health and fitness."
Phew! Good thing the parks already have the infrastructure for recreation, cuz you know Fran doesn't have the dollars to buy anything new.
Let's see, what other gems can you find in this report?
"Many NPS areas already provide venues for outdoor recreation through resource-based activities, such as hiking, walking, paddling, biking, camping, fishing and other activities."
Who would have known?
Here's another wonder:
"The committee believes that outcomes from the pilot projects will lead to NPS employing health and recreation interventions service-wide. However, this assertion needs to be scientifically demonstrated. The committee further believes that the results derived from the pilot projects will provide an irrefutable means for NPS to affirm its role in contributing to our nation's health through interpretive-based messaging interventions."
Can someone tell me what "health and recreation interventions" are? Sounds kinda California-ish to me.
Here's one tidbit I'm sure the few park rangers who manage to hold onto their jobs under the agency's move to more and more volunteers will appreciate:
"Utilize NPS interpretive skill sets to communicate the benefits of healthful participation in outdoor recreation in the national parks to the public (as well as to NPS employees, who are critical messengers for reaching the public)". Note to Fran: Find some rangers with P.E. degrees.
Now, remember, when you do head out to the national park of your choice to get some exercise, be glad the Park Service invested your tax dollars to make this stunning connection and didn't waste the money on some ranger who might lead you on a nature hike and teach your kids something about the world around them.