As a young psychologist, James Sallis was interested in exploring the motivation behind getting people to exercise. But it wasn’t long before he discovered that existing theories designed to improve exercise adherence were, for the most part, ineffective.

It was then that he decided to approach exercise motivation from a different angle, namely how the environment we live in affects physical activity. He visited low-income neighbourhoods, typically hotbeds of inactivity, and noticed very few parks, recreation centres and fitness clubs. Sidewalks were also either nonexistent or in poor repair. And many of the residents considered their neighbourhood too dangerous to play outside, go for a walk or ride a bike.

“How do we motivate people to exercise if there are limited opportunities to be active,” he wondered.

Back in the early ‘80s, when Sallis started exploring the relationships between healthy living and the environment, it was an untapped field of study. Most public health experts were exploring how to modify the behaviour, not the physical neighbourhood, of individuals in hopes of boosting daily physical activity.

More than 30 years later, Sallis has written more than 500 studies on how the design of our neighbourhoods affects physical activity, obesity, nutrition and active transportation.

He’s considered one of the pre-eminent experts in the field and was dubbed by Time magazine as an “obesity warrior.”

Sallis is this year’s winner of the Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health. The $50,000 purse is offered annually by McGill University to an academic whose research has made a significant impact on the health and well-being of a wide spectrum of the population.

A good portion of Sallis’s research is based on the importance of making travelling to work, play and shopping easier. He has collected plenty of data proving that people living in communities where schools, stores and recreational facilities are accessible by foot or bike are leaner and healthier than those who travel by car.

Yet, according to Sallis, transportation experts are in the business of moving cars, not people, and are responsible for designing roads and highways that are efficient and safe for vehicles, not active transportation. Hence, the number of intersections that are unfriendly to bike and pedestrian traffic and the priority of roadway design over bike paths and walking corridors.

And while today’s city planners are generally on-board with the concept of building walkable neighbourhoods, it’s tough to change the physical footprint of communities that were built with cars in mind. The typical suburban design made up of a warren of streets that don’t connect, combined with a large concentration of single-family dwellings situated on substantial lots, is contrary to a more condensed and accessible concentration of people and services.

Sallis suggests learning from past mistakes by designing new communities and redesigning existing communities with walkability in mind.

He also supports the current trend of “road diets,” the shrinking of large or multiple-lane roadways to make room for bike paths and sidewalks.

Sallis suggests city planners go even further, building or modifying their parks so that they include more opportunities for active play. We shouldn’t be getting rid of baseball diamonds, ice rinks, play structures and tennis and basketball courts in favour of pristine green spaces. Instead, integrating both types of usage to create welcoming recreational spaces that are easily accessible by foot or bike is the preferred way to go.

Yet despite a consensus in most communities that safe bike routes, walking corridors and parks are important, when it comes to implementation, the old NIMBY (not in my back yard) principle tends to prevail.

“I hear stories all the time from people who asked for traffic-calming measures to be installed so they can safely walk their child to school, only to be faced with a hate campaign from other parents who don’t want traffic slowed down,” Sallis said.

He also points to the community of Santa Monica, Calif., which is known for its wide stretch of beach that is popular with workout fanatics. Residents have recently petitioned city council to limit the number of exercisers on the beach in an attempt to reduce the noise associated with so many people running, walking, cycling and exercising.

Before you suggest that couldn’t happen in Canada, consider the communities — in cities such as Montreal and Toronto — that have barred road hockey from residential streets for a similar reason.

“If you doubt just how much our society is tilted against physical activity, try persuading your local school that our kids need daily physical education,” Sallis said.

How then do we reconcile the message from public health officials to incorporate more physical activity into the daily lives of men, women and children with society’s hesitation to give up their sedentary lifestyle?

Sallis says research needs to point policymakers in the right direction so that they can effect positive change in neighbourhoods through design that promotes more physical activity.

The easier and more accessible it is to exercise, the more activity people will have as part of their daily lives.

Source: National Post
July 10, 2013
By Jill Barker, Postmedia News