HealthZette

Rural Moms Need a Fitness Plan, Too

Living in wide open spaces doesn't guarantee physical exercise

If you live out in the country, chances are you have unlimited access to the great outdoors — where there are plenty of opportunities to exercise, right?

“It’s not a lack of education. It has to do with barriers and access to resources.”

Not necessarily, a new study shows.

Researchers from the University of Illinois have found that many rural mothers, who rely on outdoor activities to promote health and well-being for themselves and their families, face obstacles in accessing publicly available outdoor recreation resources.

“The moms in this study know about health and what to do to be healthy,” said Illinois professor Ramona Oswald. “It’s not a lack of education. It has to do with barriers and access to resources. Especially in rural communities, you struggle with distance between people and resources.”

The study was done as part of a follow-up to the “Rural Families Speak about Health” project, which initially looked at the mental and physical health of diverse rural, low-income families.

This new review focused on how those families stayed healthy and what community resources were available for them to do so. The findings were somewhat surprising.

“You might live in rural Illinois, surrounded by cornfields, all of which are privately owned. You could walk down a county road or a highway, but unless there was community investment in a park or a playground, a walking trail, or some kind of a facility at a local school, moms didn’t have access to nature, even though they were surrounded by it,” said Oswald.

Community investment is important in making resources accessible, said Oswald.

“It speaks to the importance of that infrastructure for families on low incomes, who are not able to drive to the next community or pay for a gym membership or something else that might be available for people who have more money.”

Yet having money doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, other women told LifeZette.

“My biggest struggle is finding ‘safe’ places to run or walk. I can go up and down my driveway, but I get bored with that,” said Heidi Baltezore, who lives in a rural area about 30 miles north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“I am nowhere near the shape I was in when I was hitting the gym. I sound full of excuses, but I really do think the struggle is there.”

“The road that runs by my house has no shoulder — in fact, years ago my neighbor was biking and was hit and killed, so there is a worry about distracted drivers, plus normal driving hazards. The hills and the setting or rising sun also make it not an option unless I’m absolutely desperate to run on the road. And for sure, it’s never an option with the little ones or our pets,” Baltezore said.

A gym would be fantastic, she added. But the commute is a haul and coordinating care for the kids is a hassle.

“I have found workout videos that I love. We have a treadmill and I clean the barns. But I am nowhere near the shape I was in when I was hitting the gym. I sound full of excuses, but I really do think the struggle is there,” said Baltezore.

Lynne Johnson, who recently moved to central Wisconsin, feels the same.

“I no longer have a farm and that was always a good workout, but I found a warm water pool was the best. Where I used to live had plenty of such pools, but the closest one I can find here is more than 20 miles away. Next winter, it may be worth the trip. It’s a huge help for my arthritis and bad back,” Johnson said.

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Doug Goodmund knows how tough it can be to access fitness resources in rural areas. It’s part of the reason he’s enjoyed his job so much in recent years.

Goodmund is the community services assistant director in Marshall, Minnesota, where a number of partnerships have formed to create an extensive bike trail system, a new ice arena, gym access to local health care providers, and more.

There’s been a concerted effort to get everyone in shape, he told LifeZette, especially in regard to the bike trails.

“Typically you look for collaboration, but this was the first time we actually had the state park system, the Department of Transportation, the [neighboring] city of Lynd, Lyon County and city of Marshall, all around the same table, agreeing on something — and that was the development of this trail and making it happen,” said Goodmund.

“And it’s really getting used — from pedestrians, to moms with strollers, to bicyclers, young and old. It’s a win-win all around and we’re just getting started.”

Given the resource constraints of many rural communities, it’s vital to consider what resources already exist and make them more accessible, said Dina Izenstark, a co-author of the study.

“For example, if there is a track at the high school, are community members allowed to walk on it? If the culture of the town is to drive everywhere, are there community sponsored events to encourage walking, or even reward it? If there is a park or playground, [and] is it kept clean and safe?”

Regardless of the options for families, the most important takeaway from the study, researchers said, is for families is to spend time in nature together when they can. Even 20 minutes each day is associated with a number of physical, psychological, social, and family health benefits.