• The United States is facing an obesity epidemic. Nearly one in three children and teens are overweight or obese and many are inactive, according to the American Heart Association. About 50 percent of U.S. adults and 65 percent of adolescents do not currently get the recommended amount of daily physical activity.

School districts can increase physical activity in children and young adults by opening playgrounds, gyms and fields to the community when school’s out, especially in lower-income areas, according to an American Heart Association policy statement published in the American Journal of Public Health. 

The statement recommends that school districts and community organizations create shared use agreements to allow supervised activities like sports leagues and unsupervised playing. It reported that low-income communities have less access to recreational spaces and community recreation centers.

“If you want to get active, you need a place to be active,” said Deborah Rohm Young, primary author of the statement. Dr. Young is with the Department of Research and Evaluation at Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Pasadena. “We need more voices to help local schools share their playgrounds and gyms with the community.”

Recognizing that schools have legitimate concerns with simply unlocking their gates and doors, the statement identifies five key issues to address with community organizations:

  • Who pays to keep facilities open and maintained;
  • How schools and community groups can best communicate;
  • Whether schools have appropriate spaces for physical activity;
  •  Who takes on liability for injuries or damage to school property;
  •  How schools can select the best groups to work with.

A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 61.6 percent of the 800 districts surveyed currently have a formal agreement for use of their facilities. However, many of the districts are in more affluent areas that already have more opportunities for physical activity.

“The bottom line is sharing spaces can bring communities together and improve the health of all residents,” said Young. “Many schools have found ways to make it work and with the low rates of physical activity among kids and families, every green space and playground that is available means more kids that are active, more kids that are healthy and more families having fun.”

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Photo courtesy of Jennifer Beazley