The Problem: Studies have demonstrated that African-American adolescents are disproportionately overweight or obese, and that these conditions are linked to a lack of physical activity. But there is limited research regarding environmental factors that affect physical activity or lack of activity among African Americans. What draws adolescents to recreational centers and parks? What keeps them away? What environmental elements would motivate African-American youth to become more physically active?
RWJF Approach: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research (ALR) program stimulates and supports research to examine environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Funded researchers use a transdisciplinary approach—one that encourages experts from various disciplines to collaborate on identifying environmental factors and policies that are related to physical activity.
Grantee Background: A lifelong athlete who was captain of the women's varsity swim team as an undergraduate at University of California at Berkeley, Amy Vastine Ries, PhD, MHS, knew from her studies that urban African-American youth are at risk for low levels of physical activity and high rates of obesity. She also knew that little research had been conducted to determine how the youths' environment affected both conditions.
Ries specifically wanted to investigate factors that influenced the use of recreation centers and parks by urban African-American youth. After getting her master's and PhD from Johns Hopkins, as a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, Ries continues to explore environmental factors and physical activity in minority youth, specifically looking at how parental influences affect youth activity.
The Project: From October 2005 to June 2007, as part of her doctoral dissertation and with an Active Living Research grant, Ries interviewed 48 African-American teens (aged 14 to 18) in Baltimore, and observed teenagers at 24 public recreational facilities. She also assessed park use and perceptions of park availability and quality by analyzing surveys of 329 Baltimore high school students who participated in an earlier Active Living Research study, Adolescent Physical Activity in an Urban Environment.
Results: From her direct observations and interviews, Ries concludes that "facility use is influenced by characteristics of the physical, social, organizational and economic environments. Adolescents are attracted to low-cost, well-maintained facilities that offer preferred activities and are within close proximity to home. Adolescents with limited access to facilities use alternative play spaces, like the streets or vacant lots, where they risk injury from falling or being hit by a car. They are drawn to facilities where they find active adolescents and avoid those where young people are engaged in drug or gang activity. Concerns about facility safety largely determine use, particularly for adolescent females."
Ries concludes that making facilities more available or providing more centers and parks may not alone increase physical activity among urban youth. Additional "facility characteristics should be considered," says Ries. For instance, youths' perceptions of a park's quality, safety and maintenance, whether the park offers facilities that teenagers actually want to use, and whether family and friends use the park significantly influence whether adolescents use the park.
"This is going beyond the 'build it and they will come' approach," Ries says. "You must create an environment that is conducive to use. Often we think that there is one thing we can do to change everything. But we need interventions that address the physical environment, the social environment and, at the individual level, people's perceptions of the environment."
Active Living Research, which brings people together from different fields to collaborate, "leads to new ideas, new methods and new partnerships," Ries says. "I was exposed to people from urban planning. As a public health person, I would not have come across them before. It's really exciting to see the field advancing so rapidly."
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.
ALR research teams are required to be transdisciplinary. ALR 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.
ALR 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."