In this preliminary investigation, improvements in physical activity behavior occurred as a result of adding a community walking/biking trail, particularly among previously inactive participants. Approximately 25% of the trail users became regular exercisers (three or more times a week) as a result of the development of the trail. Moreover, new exercisers were much more dependent on the trail as a principal place for engaging in physical activity than those who exercised regularly prior to trail development. Thirty-one percent of new exercisers used the trail as the only venue for physical activity. This suggests that recreational trails may be a powerful vehicle for physical activity promotion, particularly among previously inactive individuals. Brownson et al suggested that within rural communities, sedentary individuals may be the most likely to benefit from walking trails (9
). Although Morgantown, WVa, is a city of 26,809 residents, it is located in a rural region where there is little opportunity to safely engage in walking for physical activity. With narrow streets that lack traffic-calming strategies, bike lanes, and sidewalks, the community is not conducive for walking or bicycling. The introduction of a safe and convenient area to walk may be an excellent physical activity promotion tool. In a recent review of the effectiveness of interventions to increase physical activity, the Guide to Community Preventive Services
proposed that creating access to places for physical activity, combined with informational outreach, is an effective means for increasing physical activity levels (6
). The current investigation supports this recommendation.
New exercisers also traveled shorter distances to access the trail, implying that residential proximity to the trail may play an important role in whether individuals will use the trail. In further support of this, new exercisers were more likely to rate convenience as a primary reason for using the trail. Residential proximity to trails and their usage has previously been documented (10
). Increases in self-reported and geospatial distance were associated with a decreased likelihood of using a bikeway (17
). Moreover, King et al found that walking levels among older women were higher among those living in areas where parks or trails existed (10
). Their study, however, did not specifically measure the impact of a walking trail. Nevertheless, they concluded that the ability to engage in walking trips from home and the perception of having favorable neighborhood surroundings for walking are associated with increased physical activity levels (10
). Merom et al found that trail usage was increased among cyclists, particularly among individuals in close proximity to a trail (11
). In our study, data suggest that convenient, safe, and proximal community walking trails provide an incentive for community residents to engage in regular physical activity. This offers further support to the importance of closely linking recreational trails with residential communities to provide safe and convenient access.
The type and pattern of physical activity on the trail also differed between new exercisers and habitually active individuals. It appears that newer exercisers begin with a more conservative physical activity (walking), whereas habitually active trail users more commonly select moderate- to high-intensity activities (e.g., running, in-line skating). Choosing more conservative physical activities like walking may also be related to a concern for personal safety and injury prevention. Both safety and terrain issues emerged as significant enablers for trail use among new exercisers. Consequently, new exercisers may be more concerned with injury prevention during physical activity and may use the trail because they feel it is safe and appropriate for exercise. Similarly, new exercisers were more likely to rate unsafe conditions as a barrier when asked, "What issues may prevent you from using the trail more frequently?" These data suggest that new exercisers are more sensitive to safety concerns than habitually active individuals.
How individuals perceive their environment may be more important in persuading a physically active lifestyle (18
). Carnegie et al (20
) identified a link between perceptions of the environment and stage of change for physical activity (21
). In their study, contemplators (21
) (inactive but intend to become more physically active) had more negative perceptions of the environment for physical activity. Similarly, it is reasonable to believe that the new exercisers in the present study were still embracing more negative perceptions of the environment than those who are habitually active. Developing strategies to address safety concerns along with other negative perceptions may be necessary if individuals are to progress to being habitually active. As such, trail advocates should prioritize and address safety concerns among new exercisers to promote the appeal of a trail for the long-term pursuit of enhancing physical activity within a community.
Although this preliminary investigation found that new exercisers appear to be more dependent on a recreational trail for achieving a pattern of regular physical activity compared with habitually active exercisers, this study has the following limitations:
- This investigation used a cross-sectional design that prohibited us from obtaining a baseline assessment of physical activity levels prior to the development of the trail.
- We relied on trail interviews, which may be subject to a potential response bias. Although we were unable to determine a true response rate, nearly all individuals (98%) approached on the trail were willing to participate.
- We used self-reported physical activity data, so there is no direct evidence that trail activities reported were actually performed. Nevertheless, every effort was made to conduct the interviews in a standardized format.
- The construct used to classify new vs habitual exercisers was not validated. We relied on individual recall. Consequently, it is possible that some trail users were misclassified. However, nearly all of the respondents (94%) were meeting physical activity recommendations (engaged in 150 minutes of leisure-time physical activity per week). Furthermore, to prevent a response bias, we asked participants about the type, frequency, and duration of their physical activity before asking them whether they were exercising regularly (more than three times per week for 20 minutes).
- Finally, we used an interceptor-based survey approach to probe respondents' views of the trail and identify their perceptions of the environment. Thus, while the information presented helps to identify perceptions of the environment for the trail user, it does not necessarily reflect the impact of the trail on the overall community. However, community-wide phone-survey data (unpublished data), which were obtained during the same time, indicate that 20% of regular exercisers use the trail as their primary exercise venue and only neighborhood streets provided a more common exercise location among community residents. Perhaps a lack of connectivity to the trail prevented many community members from using the trail as a primary site for regular physical activity. Given that there are very few walkable neighborhoods (e.g, no sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic-calming strategies) within the community, trail use would likely further increase if pedestrian connectivity from the trail to residential areas improved.
Regardless, these data provide a preliminary assessment of the importance of physical environmental changes, such as the development of a walking and biking trail, for promoting physically active lifestyles. Although a community trail can provide opportunities for all residents to engage in regular physical activity, both proximal and safe access from residential areas and safety on the trail may be important issues to encourage trail use among new exercisers.