Evidence for Trails and Parks
- Well-designed parks and trails are valued parts of our environment. Research examining the connection between parks, trails, and health has helped identify the value that parks provide to people. Parks and trails can promote physical activity and community engagement; and provide both environmental and mental health benefits.
- When well-designed, parks have been shown to reduce stress and foster
- The Community Preventive Services Task Force recommends the creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity based on strong evidence of their effectiveness in increasing physical activity and improving physical fitness combined with informational outreach activities
Trails and Parks can improve health in the following ways:
- Increased physical activity- walkable access to appropriate sites motivates people to participate in physical activity and to do so more frequently;
- Improved mental health- parks can serve as a venue for stress reduction;
- Environmental benefits- parks can reduce air and water pollution, protect hazard areas (e.g., flood plains, unstable slopes) from inappropriate development, and mitigate urban heat islands;
- Community interaction- parks can provide meeting places for neighbors;
- Reduce injury- parks and trails can provide safe spaces for people to play and exercise, away from busy streets and commercial zones.
- In all 10 studies reviewed, creating or enhancing access to places for physical activity was effective in getting people to exercise more.
- Most of the studies also reported weight losses or decreases in body fat among program participants.
- Trails often encourage inactive people to become active and modestly increase the
activity levels of already-active residents. Because they provide a safe environment,
trails are the only place where many residents exercise.
- The gains in physical activity are most significant in rural places with few parks and
narrow road shoulders. Increased physical activity is greatest among people at greatest
risk of inactivity, including people with low income, low education attainment, and
- Many of these programs train participants to use exercise equipment and offer health behavior education, risk factor screening, referrals to physicians or additional services, health and fitness programs, and support or buddy systems.
- These interventions were effective among both men and women and in various settings, including industrial plants, universities, federal agencies, and low-income communities.
- If appropriately adapted to the target populations, these interventions should be applicable to diverse settings and groups.
- People who are exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality among low-income households. Physical environments, like parks and trails, that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities.
Select Research Highlights:
- In Morgantown, West Virginia, 60 percent of trail users report they exercise more
regularly since they began using trails, and 47 percent of trail users report getting
their recommended physical activity through trail use alone. Twenty-three percent
of respondents did not exercise regularly before using the trails.1
- Walking trails in rural, southeastern Missouri increase exercise particularly among
people most at risk of inactivity: those who were not already regular walkers, have
a high school education or less, or who earn less than $15,000 per year. Trails that
are at least a half mile long, paved, or located in the smallest towns are associated
with the largest increases in exercise.
- More residents using trails and pathways means fewer accidents between pedestrian
and motor vehicles.
Related RHI Profiles
- The Guide to Community Preventive Services: What Works to Promote Health? http://www.thecommunityguide.org/pa/environmental-policy/improvingaccess.html
- Parks and Trails Health Impact Assessment Toolkit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/parks_trails/
- Parks and Trails Health Impact Toolkit (2014): https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/parks_trails/parks-and-trails-health-impact-toolkit.pdf
- Measuring Trails Benefits: Public Health (2016): https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/trails-library-public-health-overview.pdf