State Policies Can Help Increase Opportunities For Physical Activity, Prevent Childhood Obesity Within Communities

February 18, 2009 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

State and local policies, if accompanied by adequate funding, can help build healthy schools and communities that offer sidewalks, open space and ample opportunity for physical activity, according to research published recently in a special issue of the Journal of Public Health Policy. But without such directives and dollars, obstacles in too many communities discourage outdoor play and exercise-and contribute to rising rates of obesity.

The studies presented in the special issue suggest capital projects that states might pursue through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Congress passed on Saturday and President Obama plans to sign today. The act includes $27.5 billion for road modernization and requires that states allocate three percent of their share for Transportation Enhancements, which could include construction of walkways, bicycle paths and bike lanes that can help prevent obesity.

“We know that physical activity is essential for good physical and mental health of children and adults alike,” says James Sallis, director of Active Living Research (ALR), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “Society must create communities that allow if not encourage people to be active daily.”

The studies in this special issue, which the Foundation supported through ALR, will help researchers and government leaders better understand some of the policy and environmental factors that have fueled higher obesity rates among all ages, Sallis said.

C. Tracy Orleans, RWJF senior scientist, said the research will inform the efforts of local, state and federal officials to craft policies that facilitate active living, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“This provides the kind of evidence and guidance needed to make health concerns a bigger part of discussions about transportation projects, urban planning and school programs,” Orleans said.

But the research underscores that policies must be accompanied by resources to be effective. One study looking at whether elementary schools in low-income, rural areas had boosted physical education as mandated found that inadequate funding actually led to a decrease in the time students got to move-14 more minutes in P.E. classes per week but 19 fewer minutes in recess. Principals said they did not have funding to adequately staff the extra class or playground time.

The studies will be presented at the 6th Annual ALR conference, to take place Feb. 18-20 in San Diego. Researchers from all over the world and a wide variety of disciplines, including public health, urban design, medicine, recreation and public administration, will discuss the latest scientific findings.

This is ALR’s first conference to focus extensively on how policy-makers can help prevent childhood obesity. ALR will present its second Translating Research to Policy Award, given to a researcher who has had particular success in catalyzing policy change relevant to physical activity and obesity prevention among children and families.

The findings published in the journal’s special issue suggest ways of improving even those policy efforts that have been effective in increasing physical activity. Among the examples and studies detailed:

– Cities and states that support bike paths and bike lanes can help more people be more physically active. The largest-ever sampling of daily bicycle trips conducted in the United States found that residents will use bike paths and bike lanes if they are accessible and safe. The study participants in Portland, Ore., recorded an average of 1.6 one-way bike trips per day, mostly to and from work or for other practical purposes. Based only on that two-wheeled commuting and bicycling for exercise, nearly 60 percent of participants met the federally recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Study author Jennifer Dill of Portland State University says that comprehensive policy plans and sufficient funding can support the bikeways and mixed-use development that enable residents to be more active.

– Urban teens who live near their school are more likely to walk, skateboard or bike to classes. Susan Babey and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles examined the demographic and environmental factors associated with active commuting to school among almost 3,500 adolescents statewide. The team found that urban teens, teens from low-income families and those who lived within a half mile of school were most likely to walk or bike to class. In suburban neighborhoods, distance and heavy traffic were safety considerations that dissuaded many teens. Among other strategies, the study suggests that planners site schools based in part on how a location might encourage more students to actively commute.

– A Texas policy mandating 135 minutes of physical education classes weekly has gotten students moving more and for longer periods. A survey of Texas public schools found that, on average, they have increased the time that students spend in P.E. to 179 minutes weekly. In addition, Steven Kelder and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin directly observed more than 1,100 students and found that they were moderately to vigorously active for a significant-and increased-period of PE class. Key to the policy’s effectiveness was ensuring that school administrators were aware of its requirements and provided with guidance and funding for its implementation.

– An Arkansas law has halted the increase in childhood obesity rates there without the feared negative consequences. Arkansas lawmakers enacted legislation that required confidential body mass index screenings of public school students and curbed access to unhealthy foods sold in school vending machines, among other strong measures to help children eat better and be more active. James Raczynski at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock has led an ongoing study of the law’s implementation and found no increase in the number of obese children during a two-year period. Critics of Act 1220 had worried that the extra attention to weight might make some children targets for teasing or that overweight students would turn to potentially dangerous dieting practices. But Raczynski found no sign of such negative consequences and plenty of evidence suggesting that Arkansas students are now indeed healthier.

Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, contributes to the prevention of childhood obesity in low-income and high-risk racial/ethnic communities by supporting research to examine how environments and policies influence active living for children and their families. For more information, visit

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation



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