STUDY: Access To Trails Reduces Youth Obesity
A recent study found municipalities with more non-motorized nature trails and forest lands reported higher levels of youth activity and lower childhood obesity rates. Interestingly, counties with more nature preserves had lower activity levels – underscoring the importance of investing in the right type of public green space to improve public health.
According to researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Minnesota, adding non-motorized trails to municipalities, and creating easy access for local youth, directly increased physical activity rates and lowered obesity rates. Conversely, counties with more nature preserves showed decreased levels of youth physical activity, while parklands showed no impact one way or the other.
The study compared youth activity and obesity rates in all Minnesota counties to the amount of public non-motorized nature trails, motorized nature trails, nature preserves, parklands and forest land. The study revealed:
- Non-motorized nature trails: Increased activity, lowered obesity
- Nature preserves: Decreased activity
- Public forest land: Increased activity rates
- Parklands: No impact
The researchers concluded that non-motorized nature trails are designed with outdoor exercise in mind and encourage physical activity, while nature preserves typically attract sightseers observing and appreciating the green space.
The researchers recommend municipalities evaluate their outdoor recreational spaces to ensure the resources are encouraging physical activity as well as diversifying the landscape. Specific trail designs, for example, are used for walking, running or biking and can have a direct impact on residential activity levels.
There are a variety of ways municipalities are paying for the construction of trails and greenways that connect residents to outdoor recreational space. The federal government offers grants through its Transportation Alternatives program which includes the Transportation Enhancements funds and Safe Routes to School funds. Projects eligible for the funding include converting abandoned railways into non-motorized trails and planning projects for adding off-road trails. Localities can also add trails to and from schools making it safer for pedestrians to navigate neighborhoods away from cars.
Furthermore, municipalities can apply for funding through the Recreational Trails Program which supports projects to develop and maintain recreational trails and facilities for motorized and non-motorized pathways. The program focuses on initiatives that encourage and enable a variety of trail activities and uses such as:
- Equestrian use
- Cross-country skiing
Each state has a trail administrator that must assess the project to determine if it qualifies for funding by meeting specific criteria:
- Maintenance or restoration of existing trails
- Development or rehabilitation of trailside and trailhead facilities and linkages
- Acquisition of necessary easements
- Administrative costs
- Trail education programs
At least 30 percent of all Recreational Trails Program funds are set aside for non-motorized trails. States are able to opt out of Recreational Trails Program funding, and allocate the money toward other transit projects. Therefore, it is imperative for municipalities to continue to push for trail funding.
Other federal funding opportunities for trail projects through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration include the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program and the Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Program.