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Rural Health Information Hub

Physical Activity and the Environment

For a child, physical activity typically means playtime with other children. Both structured and unstructured playtime are valuable to youth and serve multiple purposes, cultivating physical, mental, social, and emotional development. Research has found unstructured outdoor play to be preferable to indoor play, as being outdoors immediately removes screens and other technology while increasing children's use of creativity and imagination.

Research indicates a correlation between the amount of physical activity in young children and parental income level, with higher income level of parents associated with more physical activity in children. During the preschool years (ages 3-5), children should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Because children learn by example, parents and caregivers should incorporate physical activity into their daily routine as well. Physical activity in the preschool years helps prevent obesity, while sedentary behavior (particularly screen time) is associated with weight gain. Preschoolers in the U.S. today spend more than 4.5 hours per day in front of screens. On average, they spend 4 to 7 minutes per day in unstructured play outside.

Rural communities face unique barriers that limit opportunities for young children to be physically active. There is a common belief that rural areas have unlimited access to green space for play. However, a study of urban–rural differences in access to parks and green spaces found a shortage of rural spaces dedicated to public use, which minimizes opportunities for local residents to be physically active.

The lack of sidewalks in many rural areas often makes it difficult to walk or ride a bike to grocery stores, parks, libraries, and other destinations. Rural communities are more likely to have highways running through their town center, limiting pedestrian crossings. Many rural communities may not have an adequate tax base to develop or maintain a local park, sidewalks, or walking paths.

Rural communities do not always have access to safe outdoor recreation areas. The benefits of outdoor play are numerous so it may be worthwhile to work with neighboring communities to leverage resources and create safe recreation areas. Any initiative must be relevant to local context, acknowledging the physical location, transportation options, and environmental features, and not just imitate urban design. To ensure there is local buy-in and participation in the project, local residents should be involved in the design and creation of their space.

See Improving Neighborhoods and the Built Environment in the Social Determinants of Health in Rural Communities Toolkit for more information on how the physical and built environment impacts health and well-being in rural communities.

Resources to Learn More

Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play is Essential for Healthy Development
An overview of the various benefits of outdoor play for young children, to encourage thoughtful assessment of current outdoor play practices. Offers suggestions for how to enhance and encourage outdoor play.
Author(s): Kinsner, K.
Organization(s): National Association for the Education of Young Children
Date: 5/2019

Rural Walking in Massachusetts: A Tool Kit for Municipalities
Discusses city design and strategies to make rural communities more walkable, including sidewalk and roadside paths, recreational trails, vehicle speeds, and design standards. Describes 13 rural case studies of successful programs in Massachusetts.
Author(s): Sloan, R. & Landman, W.
Organization(s): Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Date: 3/2013