Promoting Physical Activity through the Built Environment

The environment in which one lives has the potential to influence many aspects of life, including health; one’s external surroundings create a climate that may either promote or discourage healthy behaviors, such as physical activity. Individuals are exposed to various different environments throughout their lives, including residential, work, school & recreational spaces, as well as the space spent traveling to and from each environment (Papas et al., 2007). The structure and design of communities, including accessibility to transportation, can shape physical activity patterns; communities that are more “connected” with reasonable distances and safe traveling methods between destinations tend to have higher levels of physical activities (Task Force, n.d & Active Communities, n.d). Communities that “decrease automobile travel, increase opportunities for physical activity, enhance public safety and improve air quality” through pedestrian friendly design have better health outcomes (Task Force, n.d).

Understanding how the built environment impacts healthy behaviors can aid in developing successful interventions to promote physical activity and decrease obesity (Papas et al., 2007). Mark Fenton explores how community design impacts perceptions and levels of physical activity in his neighborhood; noting that “elements of design make a difference” in promoting walking and biking in the community (Prevention Speaks: Walkable, n.d). Sometimes it is not enough to just have sidewalks, but attention must also be paid to the width of and condition of the path, proximity to busy roads and aesthetics (Prevention Speaks: Walkable, n.d). The design of the built environment can promote or inhibit behaviors; for children in particular, function and accessibility to safe traveling paths, such as sidewalks and bike paths, and structured areas to play, such as parks, are vital to promoting physical activity (Active Communities, n.d).

Childhood obesity interventions have noted the importance of the built environment in promoting physical activity amongst youth. The “Let’s Move” campaign emphasizes the importance of safe and functional designs of communities to promote opportunities to walk and bike to school, as well as play (Active Communities, n.d). Access to safe and well maintained side walks and bike paths, as well as parks and playgrounds, increase opportunities for children to engage in physical activity (Active Communities, n.d). Programs such as the “walking school bus”, as mentioned in the picture above, promote physical activity amongst children by encouraging walking and biking to school over other commute methods.

The design and function of the built environment has the potential to increase healthy behaviors; making these environments increasingly pedestrian-friendly and safe may increase opportunities for and promote physical activity in both children and adults.


Active Communities (n.d). Retrieved from the Let’s Move website,

Papas, M.A., Alberg, A.J., Ewing, R., Helzsouer, K.J., Gary, T.L., & Klassen, A.C. (2007). The Built Environment and Obesity. Epidemiologic Reviews, 29: 129–143.

Prevention Speaks: Walkable Neighborhoods. (n.d). Retrieved from

Task Force on Childhood Obesity Addresses the “Built Environment” (n.d). Retrieved from the American Trails website,

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