June 2005

Grant Results

SUMMARY

Researchers at St. Louis University developed a series of measurement tools to assess how a community's design and environment influence the kind of physical activity in which residents participate. The study explored which community features appear to increase residents' physical activity levels and which seem to be less influential.

Key Findings

  • Land use factors were the strongest predictors of the type of physical activity that residents pursued.
  • There was no significant relationship between the aesthetic features of the community or the general social environment and the types of physical activity that residents pursued.
  • A community's environmental features appeared to have a greater effect on promoting transportation-related physical activity than it did promoting recreational physical activity.

Key Conclusions

  • Longitudinal studies are needed to further define the relationship between the community environment and physical activity.
  • Future research should measure recreation-related and transportation-related physical activity.
  • Teasing out which environmental features independently promote physical activity is difficult, because some features are ubiquitous across different communities.

Funding
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provided two grants totaling $326,133 to support the project from May 2001 through May 2004. The project continues with two additional RWJF grants, ID#s 051603 and 052090.

 See Grant Detail & Contact Information
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THE PROBLEM

Despite the well-established benefits of regular physical activity, over one-quarter of the American population remains sedentary, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is a growing consensus among health and community design experts that a number of community policy and environmental factors — such as the presence of sidewalks, population density, a feeling of safety — can influence how physically active community residents are. However, as community planners and health advocates consider ways to promote physical activity in their communities, there is no reliable and valid set of indicators to measure how well a community supports its residents' efforts to be physically active.

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RWJF STRATEGY

Promoting healthy communities and lifestyles is one of RWJF's goals. One of RWJF's strategies to meet this goal has been to find ways to increase physical activity (primarily walking and biking) through community design and redesign. It has supported the creation of walking and biking trails in many communities and has started the Active Living by Design national program, to infuse activity-promoting goals and processes into ongoing community planning efforts, and to support the development and testing of local community active living projects, with special efforts to reach low-income Americans.

RWJF also funds a national program, Active Living Research, to stimulate and support research that will identify environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity (for more information see Grant Results).

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THE PROJECT

Under the first grant (ID# 046480), researchers from the School of Public Health at St. Louis University identified the community policies and characteristics that tend to promote physically active lifestyles among community residents. The researchers compiled a list of 10 indicators of activity-friendly communities based on a comprehensive literature review and the consensus of a panel of experts. (See Appendix 1 for a list of the 10 factors. See Appendix 2 for the expert panel members). They incorporated five of these factors into a survey of residents about their physical activity and a "neighborhood audit tool" that community planners can use to measure a community's "friendliness" to physical activity.

The five factors identified by the expert panel to be most important in making a community activity friendly were:

  1. Land Use — The presence of a mix of residential and commercial developments in densely populated areas.
  2. Recreation Facilities — The availability and accessibility of facilities for physical activity, such as parks and gyms, or natural features, such as a lake.
  3. Transportation Environment — The availability and accessibility of competitive transportation alternatives and infrastructure, including public transit, sidewalks and bike lanes.
  4. Aesthetics — The presence of attractions and comforts as well as absence of physical disorder, such as graffiti or litter.
  5. Social Environment — the presence of protective social factors, such as feeling safe from crime and the presence of others, and the absence of social disorder.

Under the second grant (ID# 040236), the researchers tested the survey and neighborhood audit tool in two communities, one thought to represent a "low-walkable" city (St. Louis) and one representing a "high-walkable" city (Savannah, Ga.). Telephone interviews were carried out between February and June 2003 among 1,073 St. Louis and Savannah residents (aged 18–96 years) in selected neighborhoods. Auditors trained by the researchers conducted neighborhood audits during daylight hours from March–May 2003. Using handheld computers, they collected data on each street segment — the length of the road between consecutive intersections — as well as other key neighborhood features (for example, walking trail, park, grocery store and restaurant).

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FINDINGS

The researchers reported the following findings in an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine:

  • Land use factors were the strongest predictors of the type of physical activity that residents pursued. Residents who had stores, parks and other destinations within walking distance were most likely to walk or bike to meet some of their transportation needs. This finding suggests that building communities in which shopping and other nonresidential destinations are within walking distance of homes may be beneficial to health.
  • There was no significant relationship between the aesthetic features of the community or the general social environment and the types of physical activity that residents pursued. Although this may indicate that these factors have limited direct effect on residents' physical activity, the researchers say this finding may also be attributed to the study's design and the complexity of measuring these characteristics.
  • A community's environmental features appeared to have a greater effect on promoting transportation-related physical activity than it did promoting recreational physical activity. The researchers suggest that having a community that supports physical activity is helpful, but people need other motivations before they pursue physical activity for recreational purposes. Also, people may participate in recreational exercise at places outside their neighborhoods, for example, a gym near their work.

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CONCLUSIONS

  • Longitudinal studies are needed to further define the relationship between the community environment and physical activity. Studying residents over time will allow researchers to better understand whether residents actually change the type and level of physical activity in which they engage in response to changes in community policies or features. (Project Staff Member)
  • Future research should measure recreation-related and transportation-related physical activity. As discussed earlier, environmental factors that promote recreational biking and walking are different than those that promote these forms of physical activity as a way of going from place to place. (Project Staff Member)
  • Teasing out which environmental features independently promote physical activity is difficult, because some features are ubiquitous across different communities. For example, most of the study areas had sidewalks, making it impossible for the researchers to determine whether the presence of sidewalks encouraged people to be more active. (Project Staff Member)

Communications

The researchers presented their findings at several national conferences, including the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. They also have two articles published in scholarly journals, including the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. (See the Bibliography for more details.)

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AFTER THE GRANT

The researchers have received funding (ID#s 051603 and 052090) from the RWJF national program Active Living Research to continue their research on the community environment and physical activity (for more information see Grant Results). The goal of the project continuation is to determine the most important features of the street-level environment that influence patterns of activity among the residents of the St. Louis and Savannah communities.

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GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION

Project

Developing Indicators for Activity-Friendly Communities

Grantee

St. Louis University School of Public Health (St. Louis,  MO)

  • Amount: $ 163,611
    Dates: December 2002 to May 2004
    ID#:  046480

  • Amount: $ 162,522
    Dates: May 2001 to September 2002
    ID#:  040236

Contact

Ross C. Brownson, Ph.D.
(314) 977-8110
Brownson@slu.edu

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APPENDICES


Appendix 1

Community Indicators of Activity-Friendly Communities

  1. Land Use Environment — Presence of integration between residential and commercial land uses in dense population areas.
  2. Facilities — Availability and accessibility of facilities or natural features for activity.
  3. Transport Environment — Availability and accessibility of competitive transport alternatives and infrastructure (e.g., transit, sidewalks, bike lanes).
  4. Aesthetics — Presence of attractions and comforts as well as absence of physical disorder.
  5. Travel Patterns — Frequency of non-motorized transportation (varied by trip purpose and/or trip distance).
  6. Social Environment — Presence of protective social factors and absence of social disorder.
  7. Land Use/Economic — Availability of local government funds for parks and recreation facilities.
  8. Transport/Economic — Availability of local government and highway funds for sidewalks and bike lanes.
  9. Organization/Policy — Availability of institutional or organizational incentives for travel by non-motorized transportation modes (e.g., worksite reimbursement, walk-to-school programs).
  10. Promotion — Presence of communitywide campaigns to increase active living.


Appendix 2

(Current as of the time of the grant; provided by the grantee organization; not verified by RWJF.)

Expert Panel Members

Dianne Barker, M.H.S.
Consultant
RWJF National Program, Bridging the Gap

Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Community Health in Behavioral Science and Health Education
Saint Louis University School of Public Health

Phil Bors, M.P.H.
Evaluation Coordinator
North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services

Fiona Bull, Ph.D.
Project Officer
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Robert Cervero, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning
University of California, Berkeley

Don Chen, M.S.
Executive Director
Smart Growth America

Cora Craig, Ph.D.
President
Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute

Kelly Evenson, Ph.D. Research Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology University of North Carolina, Raleigh-Durham

Reid Ewing, Ph.D.
Research Professor
Rutgers University

Rich Killingsworth
Director
Active Living by Design

John Librett, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Health Scientist, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Elissa Margolin
Executive Director
League of American Bicyclists

Robin Moore
Director of Natural Learning Initiative
Research & Engagement
North Carolina State University

Karen Petersmarck, M.P.H., Ph.D.
Public Health Consultant
Division of Chronic Disease & Injury Control
Michigan Department of Community Health

Terri Pikora
Research Assistant
University of Western Australia

Kenneth Powell, M.D., M.P.H.
Chief
Chronic Disease, Injury, and Environmental Epidemiology Section
Georgia Department of Human Resources, Division of Public Health
Georgia Department of Health

Michael Pratt, M.D., M.P.H.
Acting Chief
Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Leslie Teach Robbins, M.P.H.
Policy Specialist
National Conference of State Legislatures

Jim Sallis, Ph.D.
Director
Active Living Policy & Environment Studies

Tom Schmid, Ph.D.
Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Anne Seeley
Physical Activity and Health Initiative, Active Community Environments
California Department of Health

Jeff Sunderlin, M.S.
Physical Activity Administrator
Illinois Department of Public Health

Harriett Tregoning
Special Secretary for Smart Growth
State of Maryland

Bill Wilkinson
Executive Director
National Center for Bicycling & Walking

Charlie Zegeer
Associate Director
Highway Safety Research Center
University of North Carolina, Raleigh-Durham

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)

Articles

Brennan Ramirez LK, Hoehner CM, Brownson RC, Cook R, Orleans CT, Hollander M, Barker DC, Bors P, Ewing R, Killingsworth R, Petersmarck K, Schmid T and Wilkinson W. "Indicators of Activity-Friendly Communities: An Evidence-Based Consensus Process." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31(6): 515–524, 2006. Abstract available online.

Brownson RC, Hoehner, CM, Brennan LK, Cook RA, Elliott MB and McMullen K. "Reliability of Two Instruments for Auditing the Environment for Physical Activity." Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 1: 191–208, 2004.

Hoehner CM, Brennan LK, Elliott ME, Handy SL and Brownson RC. "Perceived and Objective Environmental Measures and Physical Activity among Urban Adults." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(2 Suppl. 2): 105–116, 2005. Abstract available online.

Survey Instruments

"Checklist Audit Tool." Saint Louis University School of Public Health, fielded March–June 2003.

"Analytic Audit Tool." Saint Louis University School of Public Health, fielded March–June 2003.

"Community Core Indicators of Activity-Friendliness Telephone Questionnaire." Saint Louis University School of Public Health, fielded February–June 2003.

Presentations and Testimony

Laura Brennan. "Does the Neighborhood Environment Influence Transportation or Recreational Physical Activity? An Analysis of Perceived and Objective Measures," at the Annual Conference of Active Living Research, January 31, 2004, Del Mar, Calif. Proceedings of the meeting available online.

Laura Brennan. "Evaluating the Activity Friendliness of Communities: A Comparison of Neighborhoods Using Perceived and Objective Measures," at the 18th National Conference on Chronic Disease Prevention and Control, February 19, 2004, Washington. Proceedings of the meeting available online.

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Report prepared by: Elizabeth Heid Thompson
Reviewed by: Richard Camer
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: C. Tracy Orleans

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