Did you know that about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year? As you can guess, favorite resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, and saving more money. Do you also know that ultimately only about 8 percent of resolutions are sustained?
These statistics highlight the challenge of those who work in the field of health promotion and try to motivate people to follow healthy behaviors throughout the year. Motivated and educated people who are trying to stop smoking "quit" about 7 times before they finally are able to successfully quit. Without help from medicines, only about 4 to 7 percent of people succeed in quitting smoking. The “environment” of temptation, stress, or other distractions, and the power of old habits seems to knock most of us off the good intention track.
So how do we make progress in promoting active transportation in light of these discouraging statistics regarding changing health behaviors? We need to continue to educate and motivate parents, educators, and children to be excited about walking and biking to school. But the research tells us that, if we are to succeed, we need to make sure that policies and practices change the built environment to make healthy choices the easy choices.
In a 2012 review of the role of the built environment in physical activity, obesity and cardiovascular disease, Dr. Sallis and colleagues discussed how simply trying to motivate someone to get more exercise when the environment around them poses barriers (such as lack of sidewalks or safe street crossings) is not effective in changing behaviors. They advocate for an “ecological model” in which you must change the person, the social environment, the built environment and policy. They point to grants like the CDC’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work grants or the Community Transformation Grants as examples of shifting from changing individual behaviors to making changes to the environment that will benefit an entire population. To help put this shift into practice, Dr. Nisha Botchwey at the Georgia Institute of Technology provides an online course to help public health professionals better understand how they can interact with engineers and planners to create healthier built environments for all.
This “ecological model” is a good fit for Safe Routes to School. With the 5 E’s approach, Safe Routes to School initiatives seek to educate and motivate children and families, while also making changes to the built environment to make it safer and easier to get physical activity on the way to school.
So, let’s all resolve to get more connected with our colleagues in the health and engineering worlds to create built environments that make it easy for us all to be physically active and healthy!
Jane Ward, MD, MPH is our research advisor, responsible for updating our research section and blogging on research topics. She completed a career in the US Air Force as a pediatric ophthalmologist with a strong interest in international humanitarian work. Her lifelong interest in fitness and active living led her to pursue a Masters of Public Health with a focus on Physical Activity and the built environment. For her MPH internship in the spring of 2012, she bicycled cross-country advocating and fundraising for Safe Routes to School and the League of American Bicyclists Bike Friendly America programs. She is an Assistant Professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and retains close ties with the George Washington University Department of Exercise Science. She enjoys bicycling for fun and transportation, triathlons, travel and spending time with family and friends on active vacations.