In 2001 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created its national program, Active Living Research, to build evidence of the role of the built environment and policies in influencing physical activity. The program was based on ecological models that recognize that behavior, and obesity-prevention interventions targeting behavior change, are influenced by multiple factors—intrapersonal, interpersonal, the built environment, and policies.
To explore the extent to which ecological models have been applied to obesity-related topics, these researchers systematically coded the abstracts of papers presented at Society of Behavioral Medicine conferences over the past 15 years. The conferences are recognized as the leading venue to present behavioral research on obesity, physical activity, and nutrition.
They found that the percent of abstracts covering physical activity, nutrition, or obesity that also included environmental or policy content, increased steadily from 1995 (5%) to 2005 (12%) to 2010 (17%), with most of the increases between 2000 and 2005. During that time, the Centers for Disease Control launched its Active Community Environments program and RWJF Active Living Research and Healthy Eating Research, which all provided dedicated funding for environmental and policy research in physical activity and nutrition.
“The public health significance of the increase in studies of environment and policy factors is that an evidence base is being built that can inform more comprehensive, multi-level interventions to produce sustainable population-wide improvements in physical activity, nutrition, and obesity,” the authors conclude.