People who walk, bike or hike local trails at least once a week are twice as likely to get the recommended amount of daily exercise as those who rarely hit the trails, a new study concludes.
Yet nearly half of those who didn't use the trails said they would be in favor of more public places to exercise, and many even said they would be willing to pay more taxes to build more trails in their communities.
Because trails are easy to build within existing communities, they "could potentially be a cost-effective public health initiative," say John Librett, Ph.D., of the University of Utah and colleagues.
"Trail networks have become a selling point for municipal governments and developers marketing to people seeking activity-friendly communities," Librett said.
The study appears in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Librett and colleagues analyzed data from two national surveys to find out who uses community trails. Their study included 3,717 adults, 24 percent of whom used trails at least once a week. Nearly 13 percent said they used community trails at least once a month, while 66 percent of women and 60 percent of men surveyed said they rarely or never used trails.
People who said that access to trails and parks was important to them were almost four times more likely to be weekly trail users than those who said access to these spaces was not important to them.
However, even nontrail users seem to want more public green spaces, the researchers found. Among nontrail users, 44 percent said they would support expanding the number of trails and other public places to exercise, and 36 percent of nontrail users said they would be willing to pay more taxes for trails and parks.
Librett and colleagues say more research is needed to figure out whether expanding the number of trails would encourage more people to use them.
Greg Lindsey, Ph.D., an environmental planning and land use expert at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said, "the jury is out" on the question of whether more trails mean more trail users.
"In surveys of trail neighborhoods, we asked people whether they exercised more because of the development of a new trail, and majorities said yes, but these are self-reports," Lindsey said.
Lindsey said, however, that other "natural experiments" have shown no changes in how often people exercise after a trail comes to their neighborhood.
Efforts to encourage trail use could boost the fitness of those who visit them only occasionally, Librett and colleagues suggest.
"Promoting an increase in the number of trail visits by those who have access to trails may be one way to help move people from being irregularly to being regularly active," Librett said.