"The environment has important influence over behaviors, but it doesn't operate in straightforward mechanisms," says Nelson Laska. As an individual "I function within the context of my neighborhood, my family—all of these spheres of influence. In the field, we talk a lot about theoretical frameworks for those different spheres." But what challenges Nelson Laska are answers to the questions: "How do I operationalize these theories that are influenced by all of these factors? How do I draw something meaningful from trying to understand these factors?"
"This is a really exciting field to be in," Nelson Laska says. "Urban planners are working with public health professionals and architects are working with public health disciplines. But I think we need to enhance those networks and do more transdisciplinary work.
"Active Living has done such a good job of linking people from different disciplines and pushing ahead with transdisciplinary research," she says. "It's one of the few organizations I know of that has 'walked the walk and talked the talk' about transdisciplinary research."
RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research (ALR) is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, design of the built environment, and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday lifestyles for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused increasingly on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities where childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.
The program's research teams are required to be transdisciplinary, involving investigators from multiple disciplines and backgrounds who work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science).
"In addition to building an evidence base for physical activity, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and a diverse network of active living researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.
Active Living Research seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks, or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it.
"The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity," says Orleans. "Increasing numbers of urban planners now recognize that community design is critical for population health."