The low level of physical activity among Americans is a major contributor to the burden of chronic disease. This burden is costly in terms of quality of life and economic resources needed to provide medical care. Like life in other modern societies around the world, life in the United States requires very little daily physical activity. The amount of physical activity we do is largely a matter of personal choice and the environmental conditions under which we live. So far, little progress has been made in meeting our national health objectives for physical activity.
Based on a careful review of the science, the Physical Activity Guidelines provides essential guidance to help Americans achieve the health benefits of regular physical activity. However, providing guidance by itself is not enough to produce change. Action is necessary. Regular physical activity needs to be made the easy choice for Americans.
To accomplish this goal, public health research suggests the use of a “socio-ecologic” approach. This comprehensive approach involves action at all levels of society: individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and public policy.
What Can Communities and Government Do to Help People Be Active?
Actions by communities and government can influence whether regular physical activity is an easy choice. Communities can provide many opportunities for physical activity, such as walking trails, bicycle lanes on roads, sidewalks, and sports fields. Organizations in the community have a role to play as well. Schools, places of worship, worksites, and community centers can provide opportunities and encouragement for physical activity.
Involve Many Sectors in Promoting Physical Activity
Interventions to improve access should also include outreach that increases awareness of the opportunity to be active.
Policies and programs that support street-scale design principles and practices that promote physical activity. For example, these types of policies and programs use crosswalks, sidewalks, traffic calming, and other safety measures to make it easier and safer for people to choose active transportation.
Policies and programs that support community-scale design principles and practices that promote physical activity. Community-scale design includes zoning that facilitates bicycling and walking by allowing schools, housing, and businesses to be built near one another.
The following list identifies relevant sectors and illustrates roles they play in promoting physical activity. The division of functions in the community into the following sectors does not use mutually exclusive categories. These sectors were chosen simply to illustrate how parts of the community have a role to play in promoting physical activity. Some communities may use different names and divisions of functions.
- Parks and recreation. This sector plays a lead role in providing access to places for active recreation, such as playgrounds, hiking and biking trails, basketball courts, sports fields, and swimming pools.
- Concern about crime can deter people from outdoors recreation. Law enforcement can promote a safe environment that facilitates outdoor activity.
- Urban planning. The Guide to Community Preventive Services recommends both street-scale and community-scale design principles to promote physical activity. Urban planners have a lead role in implementing design principles to promote physical activity.
- Transportation. The transportation sector has a lead role in designing and implementing options that provide areas for safe walking and bicycling. Mass transit systems also promote walking, as people typically walk to and from transit stops. Programs that support safe walking and bicycling to school help children be more physically active.
- Education. The education sector takes a lead role in providing physical education, after-school sports, and public access to school facilities during after-school hours.
- Architecture. Architects and builders can design and construct buildings with active options, such as access to stairs. Campuses should allow pedestrians pleasant and efficient methods of walking within and between buildings.
- Employers and private organizations. Employers can encourage workers to be physically active, facilitate active transportation by supplying showers and secure bicycle storage, and provide other incentives to be active. Private and faith-based organizations can support community physical activity initiatives financially or by providing space for programs. Health and fitness facilities and community programs can provide access to exercise programs and equipment for a broad range of people, including older adults and people with disabilities. Local sports organizations can organize road races and events for the public. Senior centers can provide exercise programs for older adults.
- Health care. Health-care providers can assess, counsel, and advise patients on physical activity and how to do it safely. Health-care providers can model healthy behaviors by being physically active themselves.
- Public health. Public health departments can monitor community progress in providing places and opportunities to be physically active and can track changes in the proportion of the population meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. They can also take the lead in setting objectives and coordinating activities among sectors. Public health departments and organizations can disseminate appropriate messages and information to the public about physical activity.
Find out steps you can take to encourage your employees to take the stairs and increase their physical activity while at work at StairWELL.
Use this Walkability audit tool to determine how safe and attractive the walking environment is at your work site.
Optional Learning Activity
Implement a Fitness Promotion program at your workplace (e.g., develop signs to post by elevators encouraging people to take the stairs, get permission to post the signs, observe to see if anyone reads the signs and actually uses the stairs; start a noontime walking club, develop a walking route that is timed and measured for distance, recruit club members; launch a campaign to get people to park in the far end of the parking lot).