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Spring 2005 Vol. 5 No. 1

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©Matt Foster/Laughing Stock Let's Get Physical

Can the Structure of Neighborhoods and Workplaces Make Us More Active?

More than half of the U.S. adult population fails to get the recommended amount of daily physical activity, putting them at risk for a number of major health problems including heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes. One way to encourage people to be more active could be to change the environment in which they work and live.

Research increasingly shows a link between physical activity and the "built" environment -- buildings, roads, parks, and other structures that physically define a community, says a new report from a committee of the Transportation Research Board and the Institute of Medicine. This area of study is garnering more attention as suburban sprawl and longer commutes seem to contribute to less active lifestyles, and technological innovations reduce physical activity. But more studies are needed to clarify whether and to what extent the built environment affects total levels of daily physical activity.

"We know from empirical evidence that the built environment can encourage some forms of physical activity, such as walking and cycling, for some population groups," said committee chair Susan Hanson, Landry University Professor, Clark University, Worcester, Mass. "But we don't know yet how important it is to meeting recommended levels of physical activity -- at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on five or more days per week -- or how much of a person's decision to be physically active depends on their physical surroundings as opposed to personal inclination."

A collaborative effort to fund interdisciplinary research into causal relationships between the built environment and physical activity should be developed by an interagency working group led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such research could help policy-makers design cost-effective strategies for increasing physical activity, the committee said.

Also, national public health and travel surveys, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the National Household Travel Survey, conducted by DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, should be expanded to provide more detailed information about where and why people exercise and engage in active forms of travel such as walking and cycling.

These surveys should be used to compare how various settings encourage or deter physical activity. For example, survey results could help determine if the deteriorated physical condition of some poor inner-city neighborhoods discourages outdoor physical activity and whether "neotraditional" neighborhoods, which provide a small-town atmosphere with grid street patterns, front porches, sidewalks, and common public spaces, attract people who are more active.
  -- Patrice Pages

Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence. Committee on Physical Activity, Health, Transportation, and Land Use, Transportation Research Board and Institute of Medicine (2005, approx. 224 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09498-4; a PDF file of the forthcoming report is available from the National Academies Press).

Susan Hanson, Landry University Professor, Clark University, Worcester, Mass., chaired the committee. Bobbie Berkowitz, professor and chair, University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle, was vice chair. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences