$2.8 million public-private partnership to examine how surroundings can encourage active lifestyles

November 04, 2004

A new $2.8 million effort, partnering public and private funding agencies, will examine how better community design encourages people to be more physically active in their daily lives. Researchers will identify how our built environment contributes to obesity and how environmental changes can combat a growing public health problem.

"We need to be as creative and inventive as we can to encourage Americans to make physical activity a part of their daily lives," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "This new partnership is one more example of how we are working to promote physical activity and improve public health."

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is paying for the five-year evaluation of communities located across the U.S. to assess the impact on physical activity and obesity of local design and transportation changes. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living by Design Program is supporting 25 community partnerships to develop and implement collaboration among a variety of organizations in public health and other disciplines, such as city planning, transportation, architecture, recreation, crime prevention, traffic safety and education, as well as key groups concentrating on land use, public transit, non-motorized travel, public spaces, parks, trails, and architectural practices that advance physical activity.

The program establishes innovative approaches to increase physical activity through community design and communications strategies. The NIEHS will examine the program's impact on physical activity, obesity, and other health indicators. Results from these 25 communities will be compared against communities that haven't improved their surroundings to encourage physical activity.

The built environment encompasses buildings like houses, schools, and workplaces; industrial or residential land uses; public areas like parks and museums; zoning regulations and transportation systems.

"We'd like to determine if simple changes in the built environment and in individual behavior can enhance physical activity and reduce obesity for residents," said Dr. Kenneth Olden, director of the NIEHS, which is the public agency funding the effort. "Local municipalities could then look at the results and determine if modifying the built environment might affect the public's health and reduce health care costs."

The World Health Organization declared excess weight as one of the top ten health risks in the world. The U.S. is no exception to the epidemic, 64 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. Obesity, like most chronic health problems, is caused by complex interactions between genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors.

The Surgeon General's "Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" (2001) pointed out that multidimensional communication, research, and evaluation would be needed to reverse the obesity epidemic. Environmental factors provide the greatest opportunity for actions and interventions designed for prevention and treatment of obesity, and behavior change can occur only in a supportive environment with accessible and affordable healthy food choices and opportunities for regular physical activity. For these reasons, the NIEHS has entered into a collaborative relationship with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to evaluate how environmental interventions impact individual weight management.

One practical intervention is to modify the environmental contributors responsible for the majority of the obesity epidemic, such as food availability, sedentary lifestyles and behaviors, and the built environment. "Community design and limited transportation choice often prevent people from leading physically active lives," said Richard Killingsworth, director of Active Living by Design. "The partnership with NIEHS will allow us to identify how design and transportation can increase active living for everyone - young and old."

"The value of these community partnerships goes beyond the physical infrastructure" said Kate Kraft, senior program officer at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "This pioneering program is more than just adding trails and sidewalks but investing in diverse partnerships that bring together citizens, local government and the private sector to build physical activity back into our communities. By creating and promoting environments that support physical activity, we can expand the opportunities for people to tackle obesity."

Physical activity can reduce the risk of a wide variety of chronic and acute illnesses including cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, colon cancer, obesity, depression, back pain and osteoporosis. Research shows that physical inactivity is a primary cause of overweight and obesity in the U.S.

"Less than half of all Americans reach the recommended amount of physical activity," said Dr. Allen Dearry, NIEHS associate director. "By looking at these communities around the country, we'll be able to better understand the relationship among the built environment, physical activity and obesity."
-end-
Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care.

Located at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health at Chapel Hill, the Active Living by Design Program was established to increase physical activity through the built environment.

For more information, go to:

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at www.niehs.nih.gov

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at www.rwjf.org

Active Living by Design at www.activelivingbydesign.org

NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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