Although a large majority of rural, low-income mothers depend on outdoor recreational areas to boost their families’ health and well-being, many have a difficult time accessing parks and other safe natural settings, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois.
The findings highlight the importance of using community investments to develop recreational areas, such as parks and walking trails.
“You might live in rural Illinois, surrounded by cornfields, all of which are privately owned. You could walk down a county road or a highway, but unless there was community investment in a park or a playground, a walking trail, or some kind of a facility at a local school, moms didn’t have access to nature, even though they were surrounded by it,” says co-author Ramona Oswald, University of Illinois professor of family studies.
“It speaks to the importance of that infrastructure for families on low incomes who are not able to drive to the next community or pay for a gym membership, or something else that might be available for people who have more money,” Oswald says.
Recent research has shown time and again that spending time in nature — even just 20 minutes a day — can boost one’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
In interviews from an initial project titled “Rural Families Speak about Health,” researchers asked poor, rural moms in 11 states how their families strived to stay healthy, as well as what resources were available in their communities to support health. Almost every mom gave the same response: participating in outdoor activities.
Researchers at the University of Illinois, who study families and the benefits of participating in family-based nature activities, were interested in these responses. Using data from the rural families project, researchers conducted a follow-up study to further figure out how and why moms use the natural environment to promote health for themselves and their families.
The mothers interviewed for the study had incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, lived in selected rural counties, and had at least one child under the age of 13.
“During the interviews, moms weren’t specifically asked about their experiences in nature,” says Dina Izenstark, a doctoral student in family studies at the University of Illinois. “They were asked, ‘how do you and your family stay healthy?’ Yet almost every single mom in the study, on their own, said they use nature to promote their health.”
“When we started to dig deeper, we noticed that because they didn’t always have the financial resources to support their health in other ways, access to natural spaces in their community provided them the opportunity,” she adds.
Rural geography also played a role in how easy it was to access nature. “Some of the moms lived near mountains or beaches or corn fields. Some lived in subsidized housing,” she says. Rural living doesn’t automatically mean easy access to green space, however. “For the moms that did have access, it was a lot easier for them to promote their health.”
The most common activity reported by moms was walking in nature. It was something the whole family could do together, regardless of the kids’ ages or family income. The next most commonly cited activities were going to the park for exercise, picnics, sports, or seeing free movies.
Izenstark points out how even routine, day-to-day activities in nature can be sources of bonding for families. Many moms mentioned the importance of walking the family dog together. Other reported activities included picking blackberries every summer, family camping trips, and staying on the beach while visiting extended family.
Moms reported that they wanted to get their families outside for the following reasons: to be a good role model, limit television exposure, and promote healthy physical development.
“Moms described how getting outside not only helped them improve their physical health and motivation to exercise or lose weight, but once outside, the moms experienced psychological health benefits as well,” Izenstark says.
Social health benefits are also important. “The moms said their children don’t always get to see other children [living in a rural area], so it’s really important to go to the park with friends or extended family, for example.”
“Although they didn’t always say they were going outside to promote their family relationships, the data suggested that being outside was a great place for families to laugh, bond, and create memories — these social health benefits influenced their family relationships,” Izenstark adds.
The findings are published in the Journal of Leisure Research.
Source: University of Illinois