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Source: Andrew Kaczynski, 785-532-0709, atkaczyn@k-state.edu
Pronouncer: Kaczynski is KAH-ZIN-SKI
Photos available. Contact media@k-state.edu or 785-532-2535
News release prepared by: Katie Mayes, 785-532-2535, kmayes@k-state.edu

Thursday, July 1, 2010

K-STATE EXPERT CREATING A TOOL TO MEASURE HOW PARKS PROMOTE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

MANHATTAN -- Having a community park nearby can have an impact on whether neighborhood residents are physically active, according to Andrew Kaczynski, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University. But Kaczynski says which park characteristics encourage the most activity is not as clear.

This summer Kaczynski is working with Sonja Wilhelm Stanis, a researcher at the University of Missouri, and Gina Besenyi, a K-State master's student in public health, Holton, to develop a tool to evaluate the potential of neighborhood parks to promote physical activity.

"My interest is in how we can better design neighborhoods and communities to allow people the opportunity to be more active," Kaczynski said. "Parks are an important environmental resource for physical activity for both adults and youth."

The idea to create a user-friendly park audit tool grew out of a pilot research project last summer where Kaczynski and Wilhelm Stanis began looking at park features and the behaviors of users in four Kansas City, Mo., area parks.

For the study they surveyed patrons and used systematic observation protocols to record the level of park activity. They found that trails were among the most used features and that more formal and often expensive recreational facilities – like ball diamonds or soccer fields – were used less by the average park-goer, perhaps because they didn't encourage spontaneous activity.

The researchers also found that about half of park patrons were active, while half were sedentary.

"That showed us that there is definite potential for parks to be better designed to encourage more physical activity," Kaczynski said. "Building more effective parks would go a long way toward promoting public health in general."

The new tool will help both community members and park officials measure which features are more likely to encourage activity in parks. Kaczynski said elements like cleanliness, size, safety and accessibility also are being examined.

The project will bring together around 30 participants from the Kansas City community, including representatives from public health, parks and recreation, urban planning, private and nonprofit organizations, and adult and youth park users. The stakeholders will participate in three workshops to develop the tool and will test its feasibility in 55 Kansas City parks near the end of this summer.

"We want to get a wide range of people thinking about how community features influence their activity so they begin considering ways to improve their neighborhoods," Kaczynski said. "The tool also will provide more hard evidence people can use to advocate for park improvements. Data can lend a lot of credibility to community requests."

Kaczynski said he hopes creating a way to measure park quality will directly result in health benefits for the public.

"Physical activity obviously has many benefits, from lower rates of obesity to reducing the risk for many types of cancer and diabetes," he said. "While physical activity is an individual choice for people, there also are a lot of times where the contexts in which people live influence whether they have a choice to be active and how attractive a choice that is."

The project, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research program in San Diego, Calif., should be complete early in 2011.

After the tool is developed, researchers plan to disseminate it widely by presenting it to community groups and at professional conferences.