Challenging Our Comfort Levels

Lifestyles, Research, and the Ongoing Legacy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The author, J. Michael McGinnis, comments on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) multilevel population-health strategy, the Active Living Research (ALR) program. The ALR program has challenged us not only to put ourselves in motion physically, but as researchers to put ourselves in motion in our research ambitions and in our creativity as scientists.

The ALR program arose from a series of related decisions and philosophies. In 1999, RWJF decided to commit half its funding resources to prevention and population health. The ALR program was one result of that decision. Population health, and the policies and research promoted by RWJF, rely on the idea that health is determined by intersecting dynamics within and among five spheres of influence: genetic predispositions, social circumstances, physical environments, behavioral choices, and medical care. As part of RWJF's efforts to change research paradigms, the foundation launched two flagship efforts: the Health & Society Scholars Program and Young Epidemiology Scholars Program. Both programs are aimed at creating a generation of health scientists who are comfortable working across disciplines and who recognize the importance of changing health on population scales.

The ALR program was launched because lack of physical activity is at the nexus of so many of the chronic health problems facing Americans, and because national resources committed to this problem were, at the time, paltry. ALR can serve as a model for the type of research necessary to advance public health because the program engages multiple factors and disciplines shaping health; encourages interdisciplinary collaboration; and is designed to yield findings that will shape policies. RWJF can take credit for much of the surge of interest, funding and research now going into efforts to reverse 50 years of increasingly sedentary habits in the U.S. population.