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Am J Prev Med. 2009 Apr;36(4 Suppl):S86-92. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2009.01.002.

Measuring physical activity environments: a brief history.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California, USA.


Physical activity is usually done in specific types of places, referred to as physical activity environments. These often include parks, trails, fitness centers, schools, and streets. In recent years, scientific interest has increased notably in measuring physical activity environments. The present paper provides an historical overview of the contributions of the health, planning, and leisure studies fields to the development of contemporary measures. The emphasis is on attributes of the built environment that can be affected by policies to contribute to the promotion of physical activity. Researchers from health fields assessed a wide variety of built environment variables expected to be related to recreational physical activity. Settings of interest were schools, workplaces, and recreation facilities, and most early measures used direct observation methods with demonstrated inter-observer reliability. Investigators from the city planning field evaluated aspects of community design expected to be related to people's ability to walk from homes to destinations. GIS was used to assess walkability defined by the 3Ds of residential density, land-use diversity, and pedestrian-oriented designs. Evaluating measures for reliability or validity was rarely done in the planning-related fields. Researchers in the leisure studies and recreation fields studied mainly people's use of leisure time rather than physical characteristics of parks and other recreation facilities. Although few measures of physical activity environments were developed, measures of aesthetic qualities are available. Each of these fields made unique contributions to the contemporary methods used to assess physical activity environments.

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