From hiking and biking to skiing and shoveling snow, staying physically active in rural northern New England might sound like a cinch. But researchers who have begun exploring how to promote healthy living in rural communities are digging beneath that scenic surface.
"From the outside looking in, you say, 'Oh, they don't need a park, they have the woods. But the woods can be as much of a deterrent to being physically active as a freeway, depending on how you look at it," said Barbara McCahan, director of the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities at Plymouth State University.
The New Hampshire school is one of a handful of universities looking at ways to encourage active living, health and wellness in rural places. Researchers say the work is important because people living in rural communities are at greater risk for obesity, and past research focused on cities and suburbs has often produced conclusions that are a poor fit for rural towns.
Adding sidewalks and bike paths so children can exercise on their way to school makes sense in cities and suburbs, but those aren't realistic options in a rural town where the school is on the outskirts, said David Hartley, director of the Maine Rural Health Research Center at the University of Southern Maine.
His research has included running focus groups in three Maine towns to identify opportunities for and obstacles to physical activity. For children in particular, transportation is a major barrier, he said.
"To get kids more physically active, one of the options seems to be getting more kids participating in after-school programs, but the busing situation is such that the bus goes home at 3 o'clock, and if you want to stay later you have to get a ride," he said. "If you're from a low income family, you may not be able to get a ride. Chances are, your parents are already working two jobs, and they just can't help you out."
Kyle Santheson is the town recreation director in Waldoboro, Maine, a coastal town of about 5,000 residents and one of the communities Hartley has studied. He said there are a range of athletic programs for children and adults — from Little League to co-ed softball leagues — and many parents carpool. But some children do end up left out.
More than one parent has told him, "Geez, I really can't have my kid participate because he doesn't have a ride."
Beyond organized athletic and recreation programs, Hartley also found that the notion that rural residents have unlimited access to outdoor recreation and open space simply by stepping outside their doors didn't ring true.
Hiking trails are largely informal and unmarked, overrun by snowmobiles in the winter and all-terrain vehicles in the summer.
Though there are well-maintained hiking trails around Waldoboro's high school, other trails are on private land held in trust and require a property owner's permission to use, Santheson said. A quick phone call is usually all it takes, he said, "But most people, if they have to go through one extra step, they say, 'Oh, the heck with it.'"
That common attitude must be kept in mind when trying to promote physical activity, said Deborah John, who spearheaded Plymouth State's research and is now an assistant professor at Oregon State University.
"We need to do a better job of making the healthy choices the easy choices," she said. "And it needs to be informed by the people who live in the environment."
Some people may move to the country because they enjoy the kind of outdoor experiences a rural area provides. But others — people who were born in a rural area or live there for other reasons — might not want to go on a solitary hike because they don't feel safe alone and would prefer more companionship and structure.
Bringing those two groups together can be challenging, John said. For example, avid rock climbers might not want to make their favorite rocks more accessible by building parking lots or offering climbing lessons.
That's why it's important to get input from the people who live in rural areas rather than try to impose some outside notion of what should be done, she said.
To that end, researchers at Plymouth State worked with residents of three rural towns to create a Google-style "active living" map, with captions of certain features — a favorite bike route, for example — provided by residents.
"It's one thing to go into a community and do research, it's another thing to get the people who live there to help do the research," said Mccahan. "The people were actually generating the information. We weren't standing there watching people. ... What that did was stimulate their interest in the whole process."
In Maine, Bob Faunce drives 15 miles to another town to exercise at a YMCA, but he knows others in his rural town don't have that option if they don't have cars or aren't old enough to drive.
"There's no other place in the country I would rather live than in Maine, but the fact is, recreational opportunities are extremely limited," said Faunce. "And it's a terrible shame, specially for the kids."
But as the Lincoln County planner, Faunce has seen some progress in the few years since Hartley's focus groups. The state is changing its requirements about school construction so new schools might not end up far so from a town center, and projects are in the works to make towns more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.
"Of all the projects I've been involved with that require community input, these things get more input than any other projects," he said. "There's a latent desire that people have. They just want to do some type of exercise where they live."