Every year, millions resolve to live healthier lives. Physical activity is one of the main ways to get and stay healthy, yet this is a difficult task for many Americans. Parks may hold the key to getting people moving as they are normally close to our neighborhoods, have facilities intended for all sorts of physical activities and—best of all—don’t carry a price tag like gym memberships do.

“Parks are a great resource for promoting physical activity,” said Jay Maddock, PhD, dean of the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “One important aspect is knowing what feature in parks promote the most visits to parks as well as the most amount of physical activity.”

Still, how much a park can influence physical activity is a tricky thing to determine. A number of factors, including the way parks are designed, the types of amenities present and perceived safety, play a role in how effective they are at getting people moving. Researchers have a number of tools at their disposal to measure parks’ effectiveness, but the quality, usefulness and intended users of these tools vary widely.

A new study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease reviewed five of these tools. Maddock and colleague Rodney Joseph, PhD, of Arizona State University, examined each one to determine which tool is best suited for different users, such as researchers, public health professionals and the general public.

Out of the wide variety of audit tools, the authors selected those that look at a park’s open spaces and physical features. They winnowed that list down to five: the Community Park Audit Tool (CPAT), the Bedimo-Rung Assessment ToolDirect Observation (BRAT-DO), the Environmental Assessment of Public Recreation Spaces (EAPRS), the Physical Activity Resource Assessment (PARA), and the Quality of Public Open Space Tool (POST).

To evaluate each of these audit tools, the researchers carried out two levels of review. First, they looked at the length, reliability, validity, data collection method and intended users of each tool. Then they dug deeper into each tool to look at how they measured physical aspects of parks such as maintenance, landscaping and safety features, and how each tool evaluated activity areas ranging from playgrounds and jogging trails to basketball courts and soccer fields.

They found that all five audit tools are effective at evaluating the features of parks and how well they’ll meet the public’s physical activity needs, but each has features that make them more appropriate or less for different uses.

“We wanted to help guide researchers and community groups on which tool to use given their situation,” Maddock said. “All of the tools were well designed, but depending on what someone is looking for, there are better choices among them.”

Public health researchers have different needs, depending on how comprehensive their study is and whether they’re focusing on promoting activity in children, adolescents, adults or all age groups. Community members and leaders will also likely have different needs and expectations of audit tools. To choose the right one, the people doing the assessment need to consider how much detail they need, the skill and education levels of the people using the tool, how much training it will take to use it, whether the study’s focus is on child or adult physical activity and how much time there is to conduct the study.

The study found that CPAT and PARA are well suited for park audits by community members, for example, whereas EAPRS and BRAT-DO are effective tools for taking a deep look at park features. The authors also determined which tools are best suited for quick evaluations (PARA and POST), studies of child and adolescent physical activity (CPAT), park assessments for all age groups (all five tools) and even which tools would be the best Jack-of-all-trade tools (CPAT and BRAT-DO).

The researchers note that their review was extensive but focused only on a subset of available audit tools. Also, further studies will be needed to compare exactly how long a park audit takes with different tools. However, with this study, researchers and community leaders will now have guidance and a starting point for choosing which tools to use when evaluating parks.

“A better understanding of park features and how they can influence physical activity is an early step on the journey to help Americans get and stay active and healthy,” Maddock said.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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