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Public Schools: An Untapped Recreational Resource

Researchers suggest limiting liability issues to make playgrounds and other recreation areas on school grounds accessible as a cost-effective way to promote public health.

There is no shortage of research touting the health benefits of physical activity: Exercise can reduce gall stones and protect the hypothalamus, in addition to providing the more obvious benefits of improved cardiovascular health and an endorphin-elevated mood.

Plenty of research has shown the consequences of inactivity, too, as John McKinney documented in a 2009 article, pointing out that a lack of physical activity is now the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S. and accounts for 6 to 10 percent of the country's health care expenses.

One way to get people to be more physically active seems obvious: Increase the number of venues where they can work out. Researchers from UCLA argue that our neighborhoods are literally making us fat and suggest that urban planning needs to make them more livable. Jonathan Lerner agrees; his piece in the May-June issue of Miller-McCune magazine outlines the New Urbanism movement, which seeks to reinvent cities to promote public health.

But although evidence that Americans need more physical activity abounds, it hasn't necessarily translated into action. After all, it's a lot easier to say that a city needs a makeover to promote exercise than it is to actually renovate one.

A new study, published in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that you don't have to rebuild a community to give people more room to get active: Minor policy changes can encourage use of a largely untapped resource — public schools.

Most public schools provide space for people to get active, like playgrounds, athletic fields, outdoor tracks, outdoor basketball courts, swimming pools and indoor gymnasiums. Although many of these are funded primarily through tax dollars, liability concerns prevent schools from encouraging their use after school hours. The logic behind this is understandable: Schools don't want to deal with lawsuits from disgruntled joggers who twist their ankles on the track at night. Still, as a result of this approach, other parks and facilities must be built and maintained for general use, which can ultimately waste valuable resources.

Although public schools in all states are shielded to some degree by a form of governmental immunity, liability is still a major concern of administrators and officials. Researchers found that only 12 states currently include language that might provide limited liability protections for activities performed on school facilities, and even this legislation lacks uniformity and depth of coverage for activities likely to occur there after hours.

However, they suggest that relatively minor legislative changes in most states could encourage schools to make their property available for public use.

Lead researcher John O. Spengler, an associate professor in the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management at the University of Florida, says that while recreational user statutes in the U.S. were originally intended to open up rural and private land for public use, social values and norms have changed since their adoption. At their inception, the statutes were meant to encourage private landowners to make their property publicly available to groups like horseback riders and whitewater rafters without fear of legal retribution in the event of an accident.

Spengler believes that they should be revised to include the health promotion of communities as a stated purpose and encourage public schools to let community members use their property recreationally.

Forty-two states have recreational use statutes that could potentially protect public schools that do so; some states already reduce schools' legal responsibility for runners, joggers, playground equipment users, roller skaters, roller bladers and cyclists.

His team points out that concern over liability is a key barrier to allowing public access to school property, although they also cite insurance, safety, supervision, operations and maintenance as additional hurdles.

Still, they argue that reducing the risk schools face by opening their gates to the public could go a long way toward promoting healthy communities — and it wouldn't require rebuilding a thing.