A socially distanced discussion on how a little activity goes a long way

 elenabs/iStock, Getty Images
(elenabs/iStock, Getty Images)

If you build it, they will come. That's the thinking behind designing more walkable, bikeable and rollable communities, according to two new American Heart Association reports published in August in the nonprofit's flagship journal Circulation. You can read the science advisory and policy statement online without a subscription.

To dive deeper into some of the barriers that inhibit active lifestyles in the U.S., we sat down (virtually) with a few of the authors:

  • Deborah R. Young, Ph.D., Fellow of the American Heart Association (FAHA)
    • Day job: Director of the Division of Behavioral Research for the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation
    • Involvement: Policy statement lead researcher and writer
    • Fun fact: Deborah is so good at her job that she's made this work interesting to the next generation. Her daughter is studying urban planning at university.
  • Mark Fenton, M.S.
    • Day job: Public health, planning and transportation consultant; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subject matter expert, and adjunct professor at Tufts University
    • Involvement: Policy statement supporting researcher and writer
    • Fun fact: Mark was a member of the U.S. national racewalking team from 1986 to 1991 and competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Trials.
  • Laurie Whitsel, Ph.D., FAHA
    • Day job: Vice President of Policy Research and Translation at the American Heart Association
    • Involvement: Policy statement supporting researcher and writer
    • Fun fact: Laurie coaches an American Heart Association jump rope demonstration team that competes nationally and internationally at U.S. and world championships.

The three of you contributed to the policy statement, but there was a science advisory released alongside it. What was the rationale?

Deborah R. Young: The science advisory stresses the importance of being physically active each day, but it doesn't necessarily give folks a guide to what can be done to either refigure current communities or take advantage of existing laws and regulations that can support and fund initiatives to support active transportation. The policy statement is really a roadmap for what can be done at different scales and at the local, state and national levels.

What needs to happen for us all to see improvements in active transportation at the local, state and national levels?

Mark Fenton: In the policy statement, we write about the importance of active transportation policies operating on three levels: the macroscale of land use, the mesoscale of pedestrian and bicycle networks and infrastructure, and the microscale of design interventions and placemaking.

In the macroscale, community planning and land use are addressed. Intentionally creating destinations where people want to live, work, shop and recreate is at the center of this.

The mesoscale, or middle scale, includes quality, comprehensive and connected networks that make getting active easier and more enticing to people. For example, more balanced transportation funding can build sidewalks in neighborhoods, create protected bicycle lanes for safe cycling separated from traffic, or provide higher-frequency bus service.

This is where a good Complete Streets plan also comes into play. Complete Streets is the idea that every time we build a roadway, we take into account all users: people who walk, bike, roll, use public transit and drive. We don't just build for cars and then if there is room stick a sidewalk next to the highway. Instead, we say, "Hey, we are building this road, or we are rebuilding this section of road. How can we make it safer and inviting for everybody?"

Lastly, the microscale concerns the small changes that can be made, often within the existing infrastructure in communities. These minor projects can really make a big difference in helping people walk, bike, roll or use public transportation more frequently and easily. For example, installing bicycle racks, benches, lighting and street trees for shade, while also slowing traffic and increasing pedestrian crossing times at crosswalks, all help at the micro level.

How does improving walkways, bikeways, rollways and roadways change how people use them?

Fenton: It turns out the design decisions in these public spaces influence how our neighborhoods, towns and cities get built. Place matters greatly to how much people are physically active. Putting housing subdivisions on one side of town and shopping centers on the other only leads to a more sedentary life because it means people must drive from point A to point B.

But if people can incorporate walking, biking and rolling to the store or to school or to the bus stop into the things they are already doing, it makes getting active easier because it doesn't necessarily require allocating "exercise time."

You also wrote about using a health equity lens in this work. Tell me more about why that's important.

Young: It is paramount that policies are equitable and consider the needs of the more disenfranchised members of the community. We must start where the need is the greatest and that is frequently in low-income communities where investments in sidewalks and bike lanes and public transit have not been made.

Laurie Whitsel: If we could make active transportation part of every transportation project, it could make a huge difference. This includes rural communities where distances traveled to essential destinations are often longer and there are fewer public transportation options.

For the greatest equity impact, planners have to connect the transportation policy with affordable housing, access to employment and other community opportunities.

Where does the American Heart Association fit into all of this?

Whitsel: The American Heart Association plans to follow these statements with an internal working group that will talk with the experts in the writing groups to understand the details of how active transportation projects that can have the greatest health impacts are funded. Then, we will use that evidence-based approach to support policy campaigns across the U.S. that we know will make people healthier. We also hope that work will inform Voices for Healthy Kids and the American Heart Association in how we support community groups working on the ground and how we train our advocates to create change in their communities.

How can people who want to be advocates get involved?

Young: It's important for advocates and community members to be involved. They are the ones who can go to the city council or public works department or planning agencies and show what their community needs. They are the ones who can hold elected officials and public departments responsible. They can advocate and organize for change. We as individuals living in our communities can make a difference. We tend to forget that, but start by attending your local public meetings and listen for who is working in your community to make change.

Want to get involved in advocating for active transportation with Voices for Healthy Kids and the American Heart Association? Join our network of grassroots advocates to help guide your leaders at the local, state, tribal and federal levels toward a more active future through an upgraded built environment.