BOONE — If a walk in the park is what the doctor ordered, the team from Appalachian State University’s Healthy Outdoor Play and Exercise Lab has the resources to help fill the prescription.
Faculty and students in the HOPE Lab have collaborated with Park Rx America — a national leader in the park prescription movement — to create a local outdoor recreation database to encourage outdoor physical activity for all ages.
The database, https://parkrxamerica.org, includes detailed descriptions, pictures and directions to parks in Watauga and surrounding counties in the Western North Carolina region.
The HOPE Lab team’s work was funded by a grant through the 2018 Chancellor’s Innovation Scholars Program.
Faculty team members Rebecca Battista and Richard Christiana in Appalachian’s Department of Health and Exercise Science and Joy James and Brook Towner in the Department of Recreation Management and Physical Education identified the need for this database during a previous research study conducted by the HOPE Lab that piloted a pediatrician prescription program for outdoor physical activity.
Prescribing a dose of physical activity in the great outdoors isn’t a new concept, said Battista, a professor who serves as president of the Southeastern Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM manages a global health initiative — Exercise is Medicine — that encourages health care providers to include physical activity when designing treatment plans.
“The physician acts as the authority figure,” Battista explained. “We can encourage people to exercise, but a written prescription from a doctor carries more weight.”
In earlier studies, the HOPE lab team worked with area pediatricians, asking them to prescribe outdoor activity for kids.
“The physicians were very receptive, and we wanted to provide a resource for them to make the program as easy as possible,” Battista said. “We downloaded and distributed prescription pads from the Park Rx website along with outdoor recreation maps of the High Country region.”
While the Park Rx America website was a good starting point, with a database of parks across the country and resources for physicians, it was incomplete. Christiana, an assistant professor, said the Chancellor’s Innovation Scholars Program grant was used to assess local outdoor recreation spaces and to contract a website developer to add a program evaluation tool and user-friendly features to the Park Rx site.
“Student researchers traveled to parks and completed assessments to enter into the Park Rx database,” Christiana said. Description data included: park amenities, such as restrooms, picnic tables and grills; pet policies; sports facilities and fields; trail descriptions, including difficulty, trail length, surface and amount of shade; directions to the park and hours of operation; and description of other features.
It has taken almost two years to establish enough data to enhance the website for the physicians’ use, Battista said.
While the focus of the project is to get families physically active outside, a byproduct is a rich database that can be used by residents and visitors.
“Our next step is to build awareness of the website and resources,” Battista said. “In addition to talking with physicians, we’re also reaching out to visitor centers, chambers of commerce and local libraries.”
Christiana said the lab’s research and programming efforts with Park Rx America have received national and international attention.
“With recent emphasis being placed on the benefits of being outside and in nature from the National Recreation and Park Association, we anticipate our work will continue to be an important component in this initiative,” he added.