Active Living Research and Public Health

Natural Partners in a New Field

Although research findings in the 1950s showed important links between physical activity and health, it was not until the late 1990s that this arena gained much attention. By this time, researchers and policy-makers had learned lessons from tobacco control efforts, and the importance of environmental and policy approaches to changing lifestyle behaviors related to activity was quickly recognized. In the mid-1990s, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began to support the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, and state health departments became involved in addressing the sedentary lifestyle of Americans.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research (ALR) program provided a major source of collaboration with the CDC in these efforts. This collaboration has yielded progress in a variety of areas: research publications related to environmental and policy approaches to promoting physical activity have grown exponentially; the importance and credibility of transdisciplinary research in physical activity has been established; and the CDC now funds state health departments to promote activity and nutrition programs. The ALR has been crucial to these developments, as indicated by the fact that 85 percent of states have used the ALR Web site to develop their programs.

In spite of these accomplishments, levels of physical activity have not improved dramatically in the past decade. Thus, the field is wide open to make more significant improvements and ALR has illuminated many potential areas on which to focus. Possible areas to explore are focusing more heavily on policy areas exclusive to physical activity; focusing on financial incentives to increase activity; increasing capacity of specialists in the area of physical activity on the population level; and other areas which will become clear as research reveals what works and what doesn't. Lastly, changing lifestyles related to physical activity will require changing social norms and this will take time. The CDC and its partners, such as the ALR program and related programs, are committed to developing a national plan for physical activity by building links between policy, the built environment and health.