Healthy Activity Environment
Building Places that Get People Moving
Our surroundings can have a profound impact on our actions. This is especially so when it comes to physical activity. If a city has few sidewalks, for example, few people will walk places. If there are no safe places to ride bikes, few people will commute by bike to work or school. If there are no gyms nearby, few people will have a safe and comfortable place to exercise.
In a nation—and, increasingly, world—where people get less and less physical activity, the “built environment”—the actual physical structures that make up the places where we live, eat, work, play, and go to school—is a key component in the fight against obesity. And it deserves a great deal of attention.
An activity-friendly environment is one that offers a variety of safe and affordable ways to be active. Some environmental changes can help people weave activity into their everyday routines, such as promoting active transportation, so people can walk or ride bikes to shops, school, and workplaces; instituting land use practices that discourage pedestrian-unfriendly sprawl; or designing buildings with attractive stairs, bicycle storage rooms, and layouts that encourage people to get up from their desks. These everyday activity approaches hold promise because they don’t require people to add “exercise” to the to-do list. Other changes can promote active “play” for all ages during free time, such as by opening school gyms to community use on evenings and weekends, or improving public safety, so that people feel comfortable being active outdoors. Media campaigns and social marketing can also help change social norms and encourage people to become more active as part of their daily routine and during their free time.
Integral to implementing such strategies are concerted efforts across many disciplines—transportation and city planners, private developers and employers, community groups and educators. Small-scale changes to the built environment can make a difference. Large-scale changes can make a difference. Together over time, they can provide the structure and support needed to make real and robust strides again obesity.
This section of the website summarizes broad recommendations for improving the physical activity environment, based on a review of expert guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, and other major governmental, professional, and public health advocacy organizations. While many of the recommendations are aimed at the local level, state and national governments also play an important role. For more detailed guidance on these recommendations and ideas for putting them into practice, explore the source list on each page, as well as the links to useful toolkits and other resources. Keep in mind that these recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in the physical activity environment.
Building activity into daily life means changing the way that our communities are built.
Lowering the cost of sports programs, lighting parks at night: There are many ways for communities to remove barriers to recreational activity.
Mass media and social media can help motivate people to get off the couch and get moving.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.