Max Denning

A study recently released by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department found that Oregonians’ participation in outdoor recreation saves the state $1.4 billion each year in health care costs. In Union County, more than $9 million was saved in health care by individuals taking part in sports and exercise.

According to a press release from OPRD, the report “calculates how much energy people expend when engaging in outdoor recreation, and the corresponding reduction in costs related to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, depression, dementia, diabetes and several cancers.”

McKayla Nitz, the recreation supervisor for La Grande Parks and Recreation, said Union County has great recreation opportunities that many other communities don’t have.

“I think that the La Grande area in particular is so rich for outdoor sports, and it’s easy to access,” Nitz said. “We’re close to hiking trails that are maintained and well kept. We are close to places to ski.”

The study found that the three most popular activities in Oregon also saved the state the most money. The most popular was walking along local streets and sidewalks, which saved the state $630 million. Next was jogging and running along streets and sidewalks, saving $146 million. Third was walking on local trails and paths, which saved $126 million.

In Union County, those three activities were also the most popular and cost saving, saving a combined $4.25 million.

According to the study, a recreation activity more popular in Union County than in many other parts of the state is biking. Nitz said the county has a lot of good areas to bike.

“I think we have a really good resource in our Grand Tour bikeway that could be utilized more often,” she added.

While maybe to the surprise of some rural residents who take part in daily outdoor recreational activities, the OPRD found that urban residents take part in more weekly outdoor recreation than rural residents. Urban residents reported an average of 428 weekly minutes taking part in outdoor recreation, rural residents reported 413 minutes and suburban residents reported 392 minutes.

However, the outdoor recreational activity of urban residents that creates this separation is walking on local streets and sidewalks. Urban residents average 60 more minutes of walking on streets and sidewalks than rural residents.

Rural residents take part in a number of activities more often than urban residents, most notably horseback riding. Rural residents ride horses on average 46 minutes a week, while urban residents average 9 minutes a week.

While urban and rural residents hike on local trails at similar levels, Stu Spence, director of the La Grande Parks and Recreation Department, said he thought hiking in urban areas was much less enjoyable.

“You have forest access, but you have to drive farther and it’s crowded when you get there,” Spence said. “So you don’t get the same experience you get here. You get a quality outdoor recreation experience here for free, usually.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer