The built environment is a term that we often take for granted, but what does it really mean? And how does it affect you, the exercise professional? Simply put, the built environment is anything that has been built by people. It’s the roads your car travels on, the railroad tracks your commuter train rides along, the building you work in, the house you live in and the park you play in.
The built environment plays a large role in the health of our nation, from an environmental standpoint (e.g., air quality, noise pollution, greenspace destruction, etc.) to the ways we are able to move about in our communities. Environments that do not build in ways conducive to activity contribute heavily to our rising inactivity rates. Communities without bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks, and parks and trails inhibit individuals from getting outside to be active.
The Community Preventive Services Task Force provides evidence-based findings and recommendations about community preventive services, programs and policies to improve health. Task force members, who are appointed by the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recently issued a new recommendation to increase physical activity through built environment approaches. They are calling for interventions designed to enhance opportunities for active transportation, like walking to school, and leisure-time physical activity, like playing a pick-up basketball game in the park. Communities that are walkable, bikeable and rollable are significantly more advantaged to engage in physical activity.
But building it is just one piece of the puzzle. We must also promote and utilize the environment around us. As exercise professionals and health coaches, you can leverage the built environment as you plan your programs, operate your places of business and work with clients—all in the name of getting more people moving and keeping them moving.
Here are six ways to leverage the built environment in your community:
- Integrate a walking program into your small group classes that starts and ends near a public transit station. ACE has published a free toolkit for fitness professionals with tips on how to incorporate walking programs into your current offerings.
- Encourage your clients to use transit whenever possible. Several studies have demonstrated that adults who use transit have higher rates of physical activity than those solely dependent on cars. Consider offering clients a small incentive, such as a discount on registration fees or the next set of classes, if they get to and from a given percentage of sessions or classes without hopping into their cars.
- If you utilize public space to conduct programs, select space that is easily accessible by transit and/or pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly trails. ACE has developed best practice guidelines for shared use of public space for professionally led physical activity that you may find helpful.
- Become an advocate! Work with your city or county council and your local park and recreation department to develop built environment standards in planning for your community. Careful planning helps ensure that the active choice is the easy choice for residents. Paths and trails that lead to destinations such as schools, parks and shopping centers all encourage physical activity, as do transit stations that are easily accessible on foot or by bicycle. Parks should be designed to encourage physical activity with space for a variety of activities.
- Approach your local park and recreation department about the possibility of installing an “outdoor gym” in a park that is easily accessible. Parks located near footpaths or trails are ideal locations for outdoor gyms, so that bicycling and walking can be combined with other components of fitness programming. You can also partner with your park and recreation department to help fundraise for the gym, and position yourself to help them program the area once it has become a reality.
- Use the power of social media to share examples of how fitness programming can coexist with the built environment to encourage physical activity. Ask others to do the same.