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Environmental Barriers to Activity: How Our Surroundings Can Help or Hinder Active Lifestyles

CEO Tinh Phung
Whether it’s biking to work or taking the stairs, being physically active offers countless benefits. Regular exercise makes people leaner, stronger, smarter, and healthier. So why aren’t more people making physical activity a daily habit?...

Whether it’s biking to work or taking the stairs, being physically active offers countless benefits. Regular exercise makes people leaner, stronger, smarter, and healthier. So why aren’t more people making physical activity a daily habit? The built environment-our man-made world, including cities, neighborhoods, streets, buildings, parks, and paths-plays a major role. Our social surroundings matter too; supportive families and coworkers make it easier for people to get up and get moving. Where we live, learn, work, and play has a great deal to do with how active we are.

This article briefly reviews research on how various settings influence our activity levels, the policies that shape them, and their roles in perpetuating disparities in obesity rates.

Physical Activity Environment Research by Setting


Family can be the seedbed for a physically active life. Studies show that parents are particularly important as models, encouragers, and facilitators of physical activity in children and adolescents. Other important factors in raising active children include paternal activity levels, positive reinforcement, maternal participation, sibling involvement, time spent outdoors, and family income.

What are the best ways to reach out to parents and get kids moving? Most family-based programs studied to date have had limited success in increasing children’s activity levels. But programs that take place in the home show some promise, as do programs that include face-to-face meetings or phone calls with parents.

Worksites and Active Commuting to Work

Worksites are ideal settings to test physical activity programs, with controlled environments and easy access to employees through existing channels of communication and support networks. Employers can make stairwells more attractive, safer, and easier to use than elevators. They can also build onsite gyms, adopt policies that encourage exercise breaks during the workday, compensate employees for joining gyms, or offer health insurance incentives for physical activity.

Worksite programs that aim to integrate short bouts of activity into the workday routine show promise for increasing activity. The built environment also plays a decisive factor in how people get to work. Sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and bike storage availability make it easier for people to have active commutes. Access to public transportation may also increase physical activity since it gives people a chance to walk to and from a train station or bus stop.

Schools and Active Commuting to School

Schools are ideal settings to test programs for boosting student fitness. Most children and adolescents spend the better part of their days in classes, and most sites already have scheduled recess periods and sports facilities that can be used to make physical activity part of the school day. Programs that combine nutrition and physical activity seem to be more effective at reducing children’s body weight than those that focus on physical activity alone.

Active travel to school has received attention as an obesity prevention strategy. Some studies find a link between active school commutes and healthy weight. Youth who walk or bike to school tend to be leaner and log more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. However, more research is needed to determine cause and effect.


Where we live affects how we live. Sidewalks, protected bike lanes, parks, gyms, and other destinations within walking distance can make a difference in how active we are. Research on exactly how neighborhood characteristics affect physical activity is growing. Access to physical activity facilities and the walkability of neighborhoods play a significant role.

Low-income and minority neighborhoods tend to have fewer recreational facilities than wealthier communities. This contributes to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in obesity rates. Neighborhood safety also affects physical activity levels. Risks to safety reduce walking or physical activity, whereas neighborhoods with more trust tend to have higher levels of physical activity.

Policies That Shape Our Physical Activity Environment

Policy is a powerful tool for shaping our environments and lifestyles. Public health researchers are particularly interested in identifying how policy changes and large-scale investments in transportation infrastructure can increase physical activity.

Some policies focus on making streets safer for walking and biking, such as reduced speed limits, longer pedestrian crossing times, wider sidewalks, and traffic-calming devices. Other options include offering incentives for leaving the car at home or making it easier to walk or bike to public transit.

The Bottom Line: Building an Environment that Supports Active Lifestyles

Our surroundings and the policies that shape them have a substantial impact on our physical activity levels. Creating an activity-friendly environment is one way to help turn around the obesity epidemic. An activity-friendly environment includes buildings, streets, and communities that encourage walking and biking, plentiful parks and playgrounds, and safe neighborhoods. Communities can start by considering the health impact of development and transportation projects, making physical activity a regular and natural part of people’s daily lives.


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