Sport and Collaborations for Physical Activity in Rural America: Interview with Mike Edwards

by Christiaan Abildso, PhD


Interview with Mike Edwards

In the second episode of Views from the Front Porch, my guest is Dr. Michael B. Edwards, Associate Professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. Mike’s research is guided by the idea that developing and managing socially responsible sport and recreational facilities, programs, services, and events will encourage more active lifestyles, reduce health disparities, and provide the tools for sustainable community development.

Predominantly rural states commonly lead the nation in unhealthy behaviors and prevalence of chronic disease, so much so that recent research has described a “rural morality penalty” of 134.7 excess deaths per 100,000 population in 2016. Not surprisingly, the prevalence of meeting physical activity guidelines is roughly 22% lower in rural than urban areas of the US, despite gains since 2008.

Integrating Sport, Physical Activity, and Healthy Development

Mike grew up playing soccer in rural eastern North Carolina. He worked in the sport industry before returning to academics and research. These days he does a lot of shuttling of children to soccer and early morning workouts with a men’s faith-based boot camp called F3. Based on his experiences growing up in rural NC, in the sport industry and in academia, he saw an unmet need for research on rural communities integrating sport, physical activity, and healthy development.

Mike spoke about the collaboration with his then-adviser, now colleague, Dr. Jason Bocarro, that he became involved with during his dissertation that was funded by an Active Living Research grant. During his years of work with a cohort of funded researchers he noticed little rural-specific research, poor attendance at the rural-specific presentations, and limited application of research to rural areas that took into account the unique rural context. That led to his interest in the Rural Active Living: A Call to Action paper, which we discussed on a crisp fall morning while sipping coffee, during a chat from our back porches.

Defining Rural

We focused on multiple calls from the paper. Mike talked first about better defining “rural” by recognizing the uniqueness among rural places and how to do this “utilizing qualitative studies to better identify and characterize the unique influential variables in rural environments.” He stressed that the “othering” of rural in the many definitions of rural places is very limiting. Rather than labeling “everything other than urban” as a rural place, we ought to embrace a more nuanced view based on racial/ethnic makeup, culture, population level, industry, and geography. This view should be influenced by qualitative work. While he is not suggesting we’ll find the Holy Grail of rural definitions, he urges researchers to be mindful of what each of the rural definitions does and does not measure.

During the second half of the call we focused on some of the work that he and his colleagues in the NC State College of Natural Resources have done in four counties as part of a CDC-funded collaboration with Dr. Annie Hardison-Moody in NC State Extension. This addressed a third call to action – “partnering with local groups…in rural settings” in the research process. He specifically talked about a project in collaboration with a recreation commission in a small town and how it was informed by qualitative data.

The town wanted to engage youth by restarting a youth baseball league. They had all the pieces in place – a good history of baseball, trusted local leadership, underutilized park space, and strong community engagement. But when the league started up the organizers realized that the young people didn’t have the foundational baseball skills to start playing games and the league disbanded despite best efforts at adapting to meet the instructional needs.

Dr. Edwards pointed out that they discovered some key things, particularly about the scarcity of organizational and fiscal resources in rural areas to support these efforts. He described the “real threat of nostalgia” in the desire to make it “just like the good old days” and the powerful influence that (outside) fiscal resources have on local interests, rather than letting local youth interests drive the use of resources. These things were only learned through listening and using community-based participatory methods. And, even though the funding cycle for Dr. Edwards’ team’s work is completed, he described the ongoing relationship he has with the community and how they may be working together on that town’s first ever community needs assessment. This threat of nostalgia that Dr. Edwards spoke of is exacerbated by demographic trends presented below, showing just how heavily skewed the age profile is toward older residents in rural places.

Interview with Mike Edwards

From the report “The Older Population in Rural America: 2012-2016” from US Census Bureau

Interview with Mike Edwards

From the report “The Older Population in Rural America: 2012-2016” from US Census Bureau

Forging Partnerships

We concluded by talking about key local partners to work with, especially for those that haven’t worked in rural places before. Like many of us, Mike worked with Cooperative Extension agents embedded in local communities. He also highlighted the prominence of faith-based leaders and church facilities, and the recent expansion of university health systems into smaller towns as a way to strengthen connections and support health promotion interventions. He also noted some really unique partners that want to get involved in creating places and programming for physical activity but just may not know how to start the conversation.

Of course, after we finished the recording we continued talking another 5-10 minutes. This is when it got really juicy! We talked about travels to rural US places and South Africa, and how we might be wise to adapt the sport for development approach to address health and income disparities in the US in the way that African nations have used it to educate about economic development, and tuberculosis, HIV, and other health disparities having a major impact in Africa.

As I reflect on the chat with Mike, I can see how the unique culture of sports that is so strong in rural towns could be used to address critical issues that are decimating rural America. An attitude of sport for development and local collaborations with healthcare and economic development could be used to educate youth about health and entrepreneurship, encourage lifelong physical activity habits, prevent substance abuse, and retain young adults in these communities that are losing population.

Examples: Kick4Life, UN’s Sport and Development, Sport for development NGO in South Africa

Listen to the podcast here:

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Interview with Mike Edwards

Christiaan Abildso, PhD

Dr. Christiaan Abildso is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences in the West Virginia University School of Public Health in Morgantown, WV where he’s lived since 2004 with his wife and two children since. His research interests include health promotion program evaluation and social-ecological determinants of physical activity, including policy and the built environment. Dr. Abildso has multiple peer-reviewed publications about rail-trails, health impact assessment, physical activity planning, and evaluation of state-level health promotion programming. Christiaan is also active in local and state active transportation policy decisions, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and national research on physical activity in rural areas. When not in the office, you’ll usually find him riding his bike (very safely) on the beautiful trails and country roads of West Virginia.

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