Physical Activity & Built Environment

There is considerable interest in using GIS to develop objective measures to explore the relationships between the built environment, physical activity, and obesity and between the food environment, nutrition and obesity.  Some of this work is conducted by the HSPH Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity . Some examples of projects are discussed below:

Developing & Evaluating Objective Measures of Outdoor Recreational Areas
An interdisciplinary research team from the fields of physical activity/public health, geography, landscape architecture, and parks and recreation developed and evaluated objective measures of outdoor recreational settings where walking, bicycling and other linear activities can be performed. Selection of measures was based on ecological models and social cognitive theory, current evidence from public health/physical activity studies, practice guidelines from landscape architecture, and formative work that the research team will conduct. Existing GIS databases, observation/auditing of facilities, and other methods were used to develop objective GIS measures of facility characteristics.

Neighborhood and school environments and accelerometers: estimates of youth physical activity levels.
This study takes advantage of a large existing database of physical activity measurements collected among sixth and seventh graders in ten Massachusetts middle schools to see if the environment at school or in the neighborhood is associated with the children’s activity levels.

The physical activity data, measured by accelerometer and self-report, allow us to identify active and sedentary periods by time of day for 251 students. We are assessing factors such as density, mix of land uses, and completeness of the sidewalk network, using GIS data, aerial photographic maps, and site visits for each school and its surrounding neighborhood. We will also be looking at the layout of the schools themselves including collecting information on the size of the campus and the presence of stairs.

Among the questions we will be asking is whether the pedestrian environment in the neighborhood is related to physical activity for students on weekends, and if active-school environments are associated with more activity during the school day. The database also includes information on weather conditions, and the researchers will see if the neighborhood environment influences whether children walked or biked to school in bad weather.

Nurses Health Study Physical Activity and the Built Environment
GIS variables associated with walkability were developed for a subset of the Nurses Health Study cohort who live in three states. These variables will be used to investigate the effects of the built environment on physical activity, body mass index, obesity, and other health outcomes. A subset of the study population will be surveyed to learn more about the built environment and physical activity patterns.

Updated 1/7/2012.