The Built Environment and Location-Based Physical Activity

Using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and accelerometers to measure physical activity yields new insight about locations where physical activity takes place and neighborhood characteristics that encourage physical activity.

New technologies, such as GPS, are improving understanding of physical activity patterns. However, researchers want to understand what features characterize neighborhoods where residents get the most physical activity.

This study used GPS and accelerometers to monitor physical activity around work and home for a sample of participants in Eastern Massachusetts. The study recruited participants—walkers, joggers, runners, bikers or in-line skaters— at five trails in the region. The study included 294 individuals who agreed to wear GPS equipment and accelerometers, physical activity monitoring equipment. The authors used standard geocoding procedures to locate home and work addresses; they created buffer zones of 50 meters and 1 kilometer around each location. Consistent with previous studies, the authors focused on five built environment characteristics: street connectivity, measured as the proportion of intersections to the total street length in a neighborhood; four categories of land-use (residential, commercial, recreational and urban public); population and residential density; and greenness, measured using satellite images and the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI).Five separate multiple linear regression models estimated associations between built environment variables and physical activity (MVPA) in each buffer zone.

Key Findings:

  • Better street-connectivity, greater land-use mix, and population and residential density predicted higher levels of MVPA close to home.
  • Women, but not men, living in neighborhoods with more street connectivity got more MVPA.

This is one of the first studies to measure location-based physical activity using GPS and accelerometers. A possible limitation to the findings was the high education level among participants.