Greater access to recreational facilities, more opportunities to exercise, and more time spent outside have all been linked to increased physical activity in children and adolescents [19–21]. The presence of parks, playgrounds, and other outdoor facilities within easy reach of homes can be an important factor influencing how much physical activity people get. For example, a study of more than 12,000 Americans aged 6 years and older found that those who lived in neighborhoods with fewer amenities were less likely to meet national recommendations for physical activity.
Physical activity levels are also influenced by the nature of our environments. For example, a study of more than 12,000 adults in 34 countries found that people who walked or rode their bikes to work were more likely to be active in countries where there was safe and convenient street lighting around workplaces. Other factors such as the quality of roads and traffic signals, the number and location of fast-food restaurants, and the prevalence of advertising for energy-dense foods all influence whether people will walk or bike to work.
The environment can also play a role in preventing people from being active. For example, research has shown that the greater the distance between homes and schools that are rated as safe for walking, the more likely students are to use alternative modes of transportation rather than walk to school.
Inherent factors in the environment that affect physical fitness include living area, access to fitness facilities, income level, and social groups. Environmental factors such as safety concerns, crime rates, and traffic patterns can also influence how often people exercise.
The more barriers there are in the way of exercising, the less likely it is that people will do so. Barriers may be physical (such as not having enough money for transportation) or psychological (for example, feeling unsafe walking home at night).
Children from low-income families and children who live in crowded conditions are more likely than others to have insufficient amounts of exercise. These children are also more likely to be overweight or obese. Income and obesity are two of many factors that contribute to poor health status.
People who live in areas with a lot of violence, crime, and danger tend to be more afraid to go out by themselves at night. This can affect their ability to exercise by making them feel uncomfortable going to the gym or hiking trail alone.
Those who cannot afford to travel for exercise might choose not to exercise at all. The lack of activity can lead to an increased risk of illness and injury.
The ecological model categorizes these components into five major categories: Individual determinants include biological and demographic elements such as age, gender, and socioeconomic position, as well as psychological aspects such as a person's confidence in participating in physical exercise, motivation, and attitudes about physical activity. Environmental factors are all those aspects of the living context that either facilitate or hinder participation in physical activity. Policy factors are defined as changes that are made to the social environment, such as public health initiatives or legislation, that may affect participation in physical activity.
Organizational factors refer to the characteristics of an organization that may influence its ability to provide services needed by members to maintain their health. These factors include the size, location, funding, policy, culture, and other attributes of an organization.
Community factors include the physical environment and the social networks within which individuals live and play. These elements can impact whether someone decides to participate in physical activity and if they do, how much effort they are willing to put forth.
Public policies are established at the federal, state, local, and organizational levels of government. They include laws, regulations, and funding directives that influence what resources are available to support physical activity programs and facilities.
Within this framework, researchers have identified several additional factors that may also influence participation in physical activity.
Environmental variables that influence physical activity (mainly through influencing active lifestyles such as walking) and access to nutritious meals (rather than calorie-dense foods) may help explain disparities in obesity and associated disorders between the United States and other high-income nations. The following are some of the factors that have been shown to be associated with increased activity levels and/or reduced obesity rates:
Safe and convenient transportation options, including public transit, car pools, and biking to school or work.
Access to recreational facilities, such as parks, trails, playgrounds, and sports fields/courts.
Availability of food stores, restaurants, and cafeterias that provide affordable, healthy choices.
Quality of life issues, such as crime rates, noise levels, and air pollution that may affect where people live.
In addition to these environmental factors, social determinants of health also play a role in activity levels and obesity rates. Social determinants include measures such as income, education, and employment conditions, as well as access to healthcare. These factors are important because they affect how easily individuals can change their lifestyles to be more active or avoid being obese.
Individuals who have greater access to affordable, healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity tend to be healthier overall and less likely to suffer from obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.