Use of a Community Trail among New and Habitual Exercisers: A Preliminary Assessment

Benefits studied:
Uses studied:
Place: Morgantown


This study found that in Morgantown, West Virginia, one-quarter of trail users had not been active before the trail was built, and who report large increases in physical activity since they began using the trail. For most of these newly-active residents, the trail was the only place where they exercised and they report the trail’s safety, paved and flat terrain, and convenience as the most important considerations in deciding to use the trail.


This study’s findings are relevant for communities that have few safe places to walk in residential areas. Although the trail-based sampling does not allow the researchers to estimate the proportion of residents who use the trail, the analysis allows for inferences on use patterns once people begin using the trail.


This study was based in Morgantown, West Virginia, population 29,956 in 2013.

Trail Type

The study evaluated two rail-trails: Caperton and Deckers Creek. The Caperton Trail is six miles long, paved, and is entirely within Morgantown city limits. The Deckers Creek Trail is 19 miles long, three miles of which run through Morgantown and are paved; the remainder is gravel and passes through rural, outlying areas. Both trails were completed in spring of 2001, immediately prior to when sampling began for this study.


The primary purpose of this study is to determine whether the new trail led to changes in residents’ physical activity patterns. Additionally, the authors sought to better understand factors that may encourage or discourage trail use. The West Virginia University Prevention Research Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded this study.


  • Roughly one-quarter of trail users surveyed were new exercisers and three-quarters were habitual exercisers, who got at least 20 minutes of exercise three times per week. There was no statistical difference in demographics between these two groups.
  • Nearly all (98%) new exercisers report that their overall physical activity increased, whereas only 52 percent of habitual exercisers reported increased physical activity. Over 40 percent of new exercisers report their physical activity level increased by 76-100 percent, and nine percent reported that their activity increased by over 100 percent. Other studies (see 76) found similar results.
  • One-third of new exercisers report that walking on the trail is their only venue for exercise, while only 15 percent of habitual exercisers reported using only the trail.
  • Habitual exercisers generally exercise at higher intensity than new exercisers, as evidenced by the fact that they travel farther (6.6 miles versus 5.4 miles), but both groups spend roughly an hour on the trail per outing. New exercisers were more likely to walk, while habitual exercisers were more likely to run or in-line skate.
  • New exercisers were significantly more concerned about safety, the availability of flat, paved terrain, and convenience than were habitual exercisers.


The authors collected data from trail users between June and July, 2001. The sampling schedule was randomized over time of day, location along the trail, and day of the week. Of the individuals who were approached, 98 percent participated, yielding a dataset with 414 respondents.  Respondents who reported exercising more than three times a week for 20 minutes before using the trail were identified as regular exercises. Those who did not exercise more than three times a week were identified as new exercisers. Respondents were asked questions about frequency and duration of trail use, access points, factors that encourage and discourage trail use, distance traveled to the trail, and demographics.

The authors verified reported distance traveled on the trail and distance traveled to the trail using GIS and pre-measured distances along the trail. However, they did not find significant differences between measured and actual distances so they used reported data.

These data were also used in a later study on the cost-effectiveness of developing trails as an intervention to improve public health (see study 47).


Gordon P., S. Zizzi, and J. Pauline. 2004. “Use of a community trail among new and habitual exercisers: a preliminary assessment.” Preventing Chronic Disease 1(4): 1-11.