‘The only place to go and be in the city’: Women talk about exercise, being outdoors, and the...
Women interviewed often found the park to be a socially intimate place and their activities there to be enriched by the presence of others, because the park was a place for bringing family, meeting friends, or encountering strangers on a regular basis. Given the importance of physical activity to overall well-being and the low levels of physical activity in many industrialized countries, there is growing recognition of the importance of nearby or everyday outdoor environments. ""....outdoor environments offering scenery might also offer a sense of escape and challenge, which could encourage physical activity at the same time as mental restoration.
Krenichyn, K. (2006). ‘The only place to go and be in the city’: Women talk about exercise, being outdoors, and the meanings of a large urban park. Health & Place, 12(4), 631-643.
This article explores women’s physical activities in an urban park in Brooklyn, NY, USA. Physical inactivity is a growing health concern, and research has begun to address the physical environment, a subset of which looks particularly at the role of the environment for women. These qualitative interviews cited physical features, such as hills, a continuous loop, and trails, but safety was a concern due to traffic or wooded areas. The park provided support for bodily needs, such as rest rooms and freedom to wear comfortable clothes. Nature was described as stimulating the senses and restoring mental capacities, and the park was an important nearby outdoor resource. Results are discussed in the context of current research, in relation to women but also more broadly in relation to research on physical activity and the outdoor environment. physical activity is about more than preventing weight gain (which may also attract so much attention for its relation to cultural norms about physical attractiveness); there are a number of documented health benefits. Physical activity is gaining its current attention in the field of public health, for its potential to reduce the risk of problems that are associated with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and some types of cancer, with especially strong evidence for reducing the risk of colon cancer, and all-cause mortality (see Bauman, 2004; Frank and Engelke, 2001). Physical activity may have an impact on mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression, but the effects on mental health need further clarification (Bauman, 2004). There is evidence that moderate exercise such as walking or ‘do it yourself’ work can prevent stroke, coronary heart disease, and hypertension in men and women as they age (Hagberg et al., 2000; Wannamethee and Shaper, 2001). Two recent large-scale studies have found that physical activity is related to better cognitive performance and lowered risk of cognitive impairment with aging in women (Weuve et al., 2004) and men (Abbott et al., 2004), and physical activity can improve muscle strength and related functioning in older adults, even the very old (Brandon et al., 2004; Doherty, 2003). Eyler et al.’s (1997) review of research dating back to the 1970s found that too few women were included in studies of the effects of physical activity on cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cancer, but some studies indicated that physical activity reduced risks of these diseases for women. Research that Eyler reviewed also showed that physical activity reduced the risk of osteoporosis, was effective in treating depression, and enhanced mood states for women. Another review (Oguma et al., 2002) found several studies showing an inverse relationship between physical activity and all-cause mortality in women across the lifespan. Earlier studies of breast cancer and physical activity produced mixed results, but some current evidence shows that physical activity is related to reduced risks of getting breast cancer (McTiernan et al., 2004) and improved chances of survival (Holmes et al., 2005). It seems that only moderate amounts of physical activity are needed in order to protect against risk, by affecting body fat and hormone levels (see Prictchard, 2004), and there is some belief that exercise across the lifetime may also confer benefits (Patel et al., 2003).
Interviewees described feelings such as pleasure and enjoyment, meditation, release of stress, independence, and the pursuit of activities that made them feel stronger and more whole than they felt when they were sedentary. Many of these experiences certainly have some connection to ideas like empowerment and resistance, and these women sometimes made those connections during the course of their interviews, but physical activity seemed to be located within a broader set of experiences for them. As discussed elsewhere (Krenichyn, 2004a), women interviewed often found the park to be a socially intimate place and their activities there to be enriched by the presence of others, because the park was a place for bringing family, meeting friends, or encountering strangers on a regular basis. CONCLUSIONS Given the importance of physical activity to overall well-being and the low levels of physical activity in many industrialized countries, there is growing recognition of the importance of nearby or everyday outdoor environments. Urban and suburban parks are a missing piece of the current research linking the outdoor environment to physical activity and related health outcomes, and an interdisciplinary approach can help to understand a number of features of parks that relate to physical activity. Among these features might be maintenance and condition, safety, aesthetics, amenities, types of activities (as afforded in both programming and spaces), characteristics of surrounding neighborhoods, and policies (Bedimo-Rung et al., 2005). Fields such as public health, psychology, leisure studies, and urban planning, all have a stake in the growing interest in physical activity and the environment, and each has something to contribute toward our understanding of human experiences of public spaces. For example, as these interviews suggest, outdoor environments offering scenery might also offer a sense of escape and challenge, which could encourage physical activity at the same time as mental restoration. An interdisciplinary approach can also help to solve some of the challenging problems of urban planning and physical activity, such as the presence of traffic, which might be able to co-exist with activities like walking, running, and cycling, as long as measures are put into place to keep traffic controlled or limited. Thus, the current research offers a set of pilot data to inform possible directions for further research regarding relationships between physical activity and the environment. This research has focused on women in an urban park, but their experiences can inform a broader understanding of physical activity and everyday outdoor environments.
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