Before You Go - September 2015
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Promoting Exercise

Study Looks at How Environment Affects Physical Activity

By Deborah L. Vence

It turns out that people perceive the aesthetics of an environment as important, and it might affect how far and where children will walk.

This, according to a new research review—commissioned by Active Living Research, which is funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered by the University of California, San Diego—that looks at how the perception of environments affects physical activity.

The August 2015 review, titled "Creating Places That Promote Physical Activity: Perceiving Is Believing," looks at the evidence on the relationship of rates of physical activity to the perceived aesthetics, safety and comfort of public places, such as streets and parks. Moreover, the research revealed that improving appearances can make a place more appealing not only in general, but also as a place for physical activity for adults and youth.

Adults and children prefer to visit and spend time in appealing places (those that include certain physical features, such as natural elements, good upkeep, unobstructed vistas, sidewalks and seating) and avoid unappealing places.

"[The] most compelling [information] is the large effect that upkeep had on the desirability of streets for walking. And, it was the same for children choosing a street to walk on and their parents choosing a street for them to walk on," said Jack L. Nasar, Professor Emeritus, Chair, Ph.D. Program, City & Regional Planning, The Ohio State University, who authored the research review.

The review also indicated that if communities want to design places where people are active, they need to consider evidence that links physical activity to environments' actual characteristics, perceived characteristics and aesthetic appeal.

Some key findings and recommendations from the research include the following:

  • Parents' perception of neighborhood safety affects their children's activity levels.
  • People view aesthetics, defined as the visual appeal or pleasantness of an environment, as important, and aesthetics may affect how far and where children walk.
  • People, regardless of their socio-cultural characteristics, generally have similar perceptions of the aesthetics of an environment. Moreover, these perceptions are not just "in the eye of the beholder," but rather are linked to characteristics of the environment.
  • Aesthetics and perceived safety from either crime or traffic seem to be most important for attracting people to places.
  • Vegetation improves visual appeal.
  • People prefer orderly, neat and well-kept environments to disorderly, messy, poorly maintained environments or those having physical incivilities (such as graffiti, litter or boarded-up buildings).
  • People prefer open, unobstructed views.
  • Physical elements, including sitting space, sculptures, food, deciduous trees, water elements and access to the street, can attract people.
  • Perceived safety from crime is associated with greater order and upkeep, unobstructed views, lighting and the presence of others who might help.
  • Perceived safety from traffic is associated with the presence of sidewalks, footpaths, pedestrian infrastructure, street connectivity, controlled intersections, clearly marked street crossings, and reduced traffic speed and volume.
  • Playgrounds and parks are more attractive for physical activity when they provide amenities such as play equipment or seating.

When it comes to changing environments to encourage physical activity, the research also suggested that the most promising strategies involve making aesthetic changes that are strongly associated with the perceived desirability of environments for walking and with increased physical activity, and prioritizing the characteristics that both children and adults view as attractive.

Moreover, to plan places that foster physical activity, communities should couple the findings from physical and perceptual measures with knowledge of how those characteristics affect visual appeal and physical activity, such as walking.

A list of strategies to improve the appeal of places was included in the review. A few of them include:

  • Add vegetation, and choose and locate plants that keep views open.
  • For nighttime, plan lighting to avoid dark places of concealment.
  • Maintain the environment to keep it orderly, neat and well-kept, and remove (or screen from view) poor upkeep and incivilities, such as vacant and dilapidated buildings, broken windows, litter or cracked sidewalks.
  • As people like to watch people, and feel safer with others present who can help, plan certain streets or areas for more intense pedestrian activity. Add features such as seats, sculptures, food vendors and water features to attract people.