Promoting Physical Activity in Rural Communities: Walking Trail Access, Use, and Effects

Benefits studied:
Uses studied:
Place: Southeastern Missouri


This study found that walking trails in rural, southeastern Missouri communities are associated with the greatest increase in exercise for those most at risk of inactivity, particularly those who were not already regular walkers, have a high school education or less, or who earn less than $15,000 per year. Trails that were at least a half mile long, paved, or located in the smallest towns were associated with the largest increases in exercise.


The findings from this study are reliable estimates of the relationship between trails and physical activity, and are particularly relevant to rural, low-income areas with little recreation-related infrastructure. The authors used a scientific sampling approach and well-tested survey questions to minimize any biases and represent the population accurately.


The study is based in 17 communities across 12 rural, southeastern Missouri counties. Communities ranged in size from 616 to 22,494 residents. These communities have higher poverty rates, are medically underserved, and have lower educational attainment than the rest of the U.S. and Missouri.

Trail Type

The trails are walking-specific, generally with a paved or gravel surface. They are 0.13 to 2.38 miles long, and are located in residential parks within city limits. At the time of the study, the trails had been in existence for anywhere from six months to five years.


The purpose of this study is to test whether walking trails are associated with increased physical activity, identify what other factors are associated with increased physical activity, and determine aspects of the trails that may be discouraging or encouraging use. This study was conducted by university and agency public health scientists and funded through grants from the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health, the Missouri Department of Public Health, and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.


  • Of the respondents who had access to trails, 39 percent had used them. Of those who had used the trails, 55 percent report increasing the amount of walking since they started using the trail.
  • Those with a high school education or less report some of the largest increases in walking since they started using the trail: 62 percent report increased walking versus 46 percent of college-educated respondents reporting increased walking.
  • Of the respondents earning less than $15,000 per year, 64 percent report increased walking versus 43 percent of those earning $35,000 per year or more.
  • Of those who had not been regular walkers prior to using the trail, 58 percent report increasing overall walking since using the trail, versus 48 percent of those who were regular walkers already.
  • Across marital status types, those who were widowed were most likely to report increased walking since using the trail, with 75 percent reporting increased walking, compared to 44 percent of those divorced or never married and 55 percent of couples. These findings are consistent with other studies (see 78) and suggest that trails are also important places for social connection.
  • The type of trail to which respondents had access affected how the trail might change overall physical activity. Trails that were at least ½ mile long were associated with 88 percent of respondents walking more overall, whereas trails less than ¼ mile long were only associated with 35 percent of respondents walking more. Respondents who used paved trails were more likely to increase overall activity, with 63 percent of paved trail users reporting increased walking versus 37 percent of gravel trail users.
  • Residents of smaller communities were more likely to report overall increases in walking since they began using the trail, with 79 percent of respondents in communities with less than 5,500 residents reporting increased walking versus 35 percent of respondents in communities of at least 10,000 residents.
  • Surprisingly, the distance a person had to travel to reach the trail was not associated with whether respondents increased overall walking since they started using the trail.
  • The results highlight the importance of paving and length, and the unimportance of distance from homes in increasing respondents’ overall level of walking after they begin using the trail. These results suggest that communities may be better off developing a longer, high-quality destination for the community rather than many shorter, neighborhood trails if the goal is to increase a community’s physical activity levels.


The authors collected data between April and December 1998 via phone interviews with randomly selected residents aged 18 and older. They conducted interviews with 1,269 respondents, with a response rate of 73 percent. Respondents were asked questions about nine topics: walking in the past month, regular walking habits, access to walking trails, access to indoor exercise facilities (e.g., gym or mall), walking trail use, whether trail use changed their overall exercise habits, perceived safety while using the trails, how they learned about the trails, and aspects of the trails they liked most.

Because these data are self-reported, they are subject to reporting inaccuracies. Additionally, these results represent a snapshot in time rather than a long-term, longitudinal survey, and it is possible that some respondents’ increased physical activity may decrease over time.


Brownson, R., R. Housemann, D. Brown, J. Jackson-Thompson, A. King, B. Malone, and J. Sallis. 2000. “Promoting Physical Activity in Rural Communities: Walking Trail Access, Use, and Effects.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 18(3): 235-242.