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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Middle-aged and older adults who had increased access to recreational facilities near their homes had a slower decline in physical activity levels over time, in a new study.
Other studies have looked at the link between recreational facilities and activity levels. But the new research also investigated how people's exercise habits changed as more places to swim, bike and play sports were added to their neighborhood.
"Our work suggests that increasing the availability of recreational facilities in neighborhoods can support adults in maintaining or increasing their physical activity levels," lead author Yamini Ranchod told Reuters Health in an email.
Ranchod is a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
She and her colleagues used data from a long-term study of ethnically-diverse adults who lived in a variety of U.S. cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Researchers surveyed the 6,168 participants about their physical activity levels in 2000-2002, when they were 45 to 84 years old. Follow-up visits took place about a year and a half and three years later.
The researchers determined how many recreational facilities - like gyms, yoga studios, aquatic centers and tennis courts - were available within one mile of each participant's home.
Then they looked for any variation in people's activity levels over time as the number of facilities in their neighborhood changed.
At the beginning of the study, the researchers found people who lived in areas with more recreational facilities generally were more active.
They also found that although most people exercised less as time went on, declines were less pronounced for those living in neighborhoods where the number of recreational facilities increased.
In areas with the most new facilities, declines in physical activity were almost eliminated, according to findings published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Although the study doesn't prove building recreational facilities causes people to become more active, it shows that a correlation exists.
This study is important because the majority of studies on this topic have been so-called cross-sectional, James Sallis told Reuters Health.
Sallis studies physical activity at San Diego State University in California and directs the Active Living Research program. He was not involved in the new study.
Cross-sectional studies look at one moment in time and can't detect changes in behavior over time. The main criticism of earlier studies is that it's possible active people simply chose to live in areas with more recreational opportunities. In that case, adding more facilities probably wouldn't affect their activity levels.
Since the new study looked at changes over time, Sallis believes it lends support to the idea that building more facilities improves the chances that older adults will maintain some level of activity.
"It's a signal that here's a way to have a long-term effect on whole communities by increasing the number of places for people to be active," Sallis said.
Even for people who don't live in communities with recreational facilities, there are ways to get exercise, he added.
"If you don't have recreation facilities, maybe you live in a place that has other destinations nearby. So you could get your physical activity by walking instead of driving - to do your shopping or walking your child to school. So there are certainly things you could do in your neighborhood if it's designed in a proper way," Sallis said.
Alternatively, people who live in neighborhoods that aren't conducive to walking can look for recreational facilities somewhere else, perhaps near where they work or volunteer.
SOURCE: bit.ly/IShlXK American Journal of Epidemiology, online November 13, 2013.