Ken Carlson

Stanislaus County has the recreation outlets, but are people using them?

More than 70 percent of Stanislaus County residents have access to parks or recreation facilities, says a study that compared exercise opportunities in different regions of the U.S.

With Modesto’s 75 parks, tennis courts, the Virginia Corridor bike path, Helen White Memorial Trail, soccer fields and other parks sprinkled across the greater county, Stanislaus fared well in the national comparisons published last month in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

It suggests the county has built the environment for exercise that’s deemed essential for healthy living. Agencies need to explore other reasons why many county residents are not the picture of health.

Researchers with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute examined whether city dwellers lived within a half-mile distance of a park, or within a mile of a gym, recreation center or swimming pool. Rural residents were considered to have good access to recreation if they lived within 3 miles of a park.

The Southern states had the worst opportunities for exercise, and the best were found in the Northeast. Stanislaus scored in the top level with 70 percent to 100 percent of residents living in close proximity to recreation facilities, as did counties in the Bay Area and Southern California.

Merced County had fewer opportunities, with access measured at 53 percent to 70 percent.

Previous reports have described the poverty and social ills that contribute to disappointing health scores for the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Stanislaus was ranked 35th among California’s 58 counties in the 2014 County Health Rankings and historically has had higher rates of heart attack deaths, obesity and diabetes.

The county rankings published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conclude the least healthy communities have poorer access to nutritious foods and higher rates of smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and teen births. Others have suggested that high-cholesterol meals haven’t disappeared from local dinner tables and habits like chewing tobacco heighten the risk of premature death.

Homero Mejia, director of Congregations Building Community, agreed that parks are distributed across the county, including in low-income areas of Modesto. “The bigger barrier is how safe do people feel in those parks,” Mejia said. “This time of year, it gets dark early and people won’t be out past 5 o’clock.”

In some neighborhoods, stores stocked with healthy foods are not within walking distance or a short drive of residents’ homes, so people rely on corner stores selling packaged food and soft drinks, he said.

Mejia said he’s encouraged about the exercise movement known as Zumba. He said it has taken hold in Modesto with dance exercise classes at recreation centers, the Salvation Army, private homes and CBC’s Vine Street office.

“They are all over the place,” Mejia said. “It is mostly led by Latinas. Women who have never exercised in their lives are doing it.”

Apparently, other folks in the 50 states need to shake off the inertia. The recent report noted that less than half of American adults meet the recommended exercise guidelines, which are 150 minutes of moderate workout per week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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