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Active Living by Design

An RWJF Collection

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Active Living by Design

An RWJF National Program

Dates of Program: 2001 to 2009

Field of Work: Active living

Problem Synopsis: Despite extensive research showing that regular physical activity has many health benefits, in 2001 only about half of American adults met the recommendations for exercise, and nearly six in 10 were overweight or obese. Opportunities for routine physical activity, such as by walking or biking to school or work, or playing in a park, had been engineered out of most people’s lives.

Synopsis of the Work: Twenty-five community partnerships nationwide implemented projects to change the built environment and public policies to make physical activity part of everyday life. Each partnership focused on:

  • Providing diverse opportunities for active living, and expanding residents’ access to them.
  • Eliminating design and policy barriers that reduce opportunities for active living.
  • Developing programs that expanded public awareness and understanding of the benefits of active living.

Key Results

The community partnerships spearheaded or contributed to nearly 200 projects in residential neighborhoods, downtowns, workplaces, schools and parks designed to create a built environment that fosters physical activity. The most common projects aimed to make pedestrian and bicycle travel safer, such as by adding crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes and parking.

The partnerships also led or contributed to education and advocacy that produced more than 100 policies that support active living near schools, in workplaces and in public spaces, such as new design standards for local streets. And the partnerships organized dozens of new or expanded programs to engage people in physical activity, such as walking clubs and programs to encourage children to walk or bicycle to school.

The partnerships also leveraged $256 million in grants, direct contributions, policy decisions and in-kind contributions to support active living. According to Katherine M. Kraft, PhD, a former senior program officer at RWJF who launched the program, “Active Living by Design helped change the terms of the debate: revamping the environment to encourage individuals to make healthy choices became more important than targeting individual behavior.

"Active Living by Design has quickly grown into a broader movement and a philosophy that millions of people believe can contribute to improved health, better quality of life and safer, more vibrant communities,” said Sarah Strunk, program director.

Key Findings

  • Transtria LLC in St. Louis, Mo., evaluated the program. Among the findings of its evaluation are:

    • Partnerships that prepared more for their work—such as by completing local assessments—implemented more programs, policy changes, physical projects, and promotions, which attests to the effectiveness of the Active Living by Design model.
    • Partnerships that worked in communities where more than 40 percent of residents are non-White or impoverished implemented fewer programs, policy changes, physical projects, and promotions.
    • Conclusion: The varying contexts, resources, and strategies across participating communities provide more questions than answers about the most effective approaches to fostering active living.

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Active Living by Design showed community partnerships can spur policy & environmental changes to support active living.