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HSRI Lightning Talks—Bill Stewart and Kim Shinew

Kim Shinew and Bill Stewart, professors in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, recently took part in the HSRI Lightning Talks for COVID-19, hosted by Paulanne Jushkevich, Associate Vice Chancellor for Advancement, Health Sciences & Research Initiatives.

Click here to see the full transcript.

PAULANNE JUSHKEVICH: It's 1 o'clock Central time, and I'm welcoming you to the HSRI Lightning Talks, specifically about COVID-19, because we all just can't hear enough of COVID-19, can we? My name is Paulanne Juskevich. I'm the associate vice chancellor for advancement for Health Sciences and Research Initiative, which is where the HSRI comes from. I'm going to go ahead and introduce our very first speaker.

BILL STEWART: Can you see my slides on the screen here?

PAULANNE JUSHKEVICH: I think you have to press Present yet.

BILL STEWART: There we go. Hello, everyone. Yeah, my name is Bill Stewart. Thank you, Paulanne. I'm partnering today with colleague Kim Shinew. We're both from the Faculty and Recreation, Sport and Tourism. We've got a short presentation on the benefits of parks in everyday lives and recreational impacts related to COVID. I'm first up, and I'm going to discuss benefits related to spending time in parks. I'm going to follow with an overview of research she's been conducting on the recreational trail.


An impact of the COVID-19 has been the closure of many trails and parks. And we're likely to emerge with an increased appreciation for the value of parks on the quality of everyday lives. Many of us, and I'm including myself in on this, we take for granted the seemingly ordinary parks, the sidewalks in our daily routines. When we don't have access to them, we miss the enrichment they bring and know something good is missing from our lives.

An important set of benefits of parks is related to the positive impacts on physical health. In a nutshell, parks promote physical, active lifestyles. Activities like walking, jogging, and bicycle riding are fostered by park environments. And let's face it, it's a lot more fun to be outdoors exercising than indoors.

Researchers found that proximity to parks is important to whether or not you'll use the park for exercise. Once we get on the other side of this coronavirus, American society may be more sensitive to the geographic distribution of parks as part of equitable access to public health resources. And a final point on this slide is that park agencies care about compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act. Through both accommodations and universal design principles, park areas engage people with disabilities in ways that accommodates them and are well aware of the need to adapt to the needs of people who use the park.

Along with the perks of parks on our physical health, there's also many benefits of parks on our mental health and well-being. Parks are a natural antidote to the crowded busyness of everyday routines. Exposure to nature affects our bodies in ways it reduces stress, that lowers depression, and restores attention and ability to focus.

A part of our well-being is related to social interaction, engagement with a community of people that's bigger than ourselves. And Social? Connections fostered by spending time in parks are ones that I think we've all become keenly aware of in our isolation of the past two months or so. I'm going to pass the microphone over today to my colleague Kim Shinew. She's going to share some news about COVID-related research that she's been conducting.

KIM SHINEW: Thanks, Bill. To expand on some of Bill's points, evidence indicates a surge of public use of parks and trails over the last few months. Many park and recreation agencies have closed facilities, canceled programs, removed nets from courts, tennis courts, and basketball courts, closed playgrounds. However, in general, parks and trails have remained open. With so many other physical activities eliminated, as others have indicated, more people are walking, biking, and jogging. So trails are getting lots of use.

I'm currently involved in a research project with colleagues from Colorado, Texas, Florida, Minnesota, and California. The goal of the study is to observe people's social distancing behavior on trails. My observations are occurring at a local trail in Champaign Park.

Social distancing on parks and trails is a national issue. The National Recreation and Park Association has offered guidelines for trail and park users. Some of their recommendations are included in the visual on this slide. For example, they recommend not using parks or trails if you are exhibiting symptoms, observing the CDC's minimum recommendation of physical distancing, and warning other users of your presence as you pass.

We started this study quite early, at the beginning stages of the pandemic, so we have already collected two months of data. We are noticing quite a few changes just since the start of the project. These photos represent some of what we are seeing in our research.

Signs are common, to remind people to maintain social distancing, and it appears that reminders are necessary. For example, something we have noticed is that often, it is often difficult for people to maintain social distancing while on the trails. Social distancing is not conducive to conversation. And if we are not diligent, we often move towards one another. We have also noticed inconsistency regarding users wearing masks. About six weeks ago, we noticed an increase in people wearing masks on the trails. This increase coincided with the CDC recommendation.

In the beginning of the data collection process, we rarely saw people with masks on the trails. Now it would be rare not to see some people with some masks. It is certainly not the majority, but it is common practice. This also varies by state. For example, my colleague in Texas is not seeing as many masks on his trail.

Among users, we have also noticed a brief decision point, in which folks are determining whether someone is going to move to prevent getting too close to the others. This often requires one person or party moving off the trail as they pass the other person or party. For some trails, this is quite easy and just involves going into the grass. For other trails that are along lakes or in woods, this maneuvering is not quite as easy.

Along some trails, we are seeing deliberate efforts to reinforce the social distancing policy, by using cones or markings. Whereas, along other trails, we are not seeing any attempts, resulting in crowding. The one photograph of the person at the trailhead with the chalk mark clearly demonstrates social distancing efforts.

We are sharing our findings with park and trail managers to help them shape policies, practices, and designs. Unfortunately, this is not a temporary issue. Parks and trails will likely be dealing with this for quite some time. And we are hopeful that our data is useful to them. Thank you very much.

PAULANNE JUSHKEVICH: Kim and Bill, thank you so much. That was terrific.

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