Policy Corner: Built Environment Policies to Help Curb Increases in Childhood Obesity and Inactivity

One out of every three children in the United States is classified as overweight or obese, and physical inactivity is one of the leading causes. There are a number of factors that affect a child’s activity level – one being their environment and physical surroundings.

The term “built environment” describes physical or man-made features that provide opportunities for physical activity, such as sidewalks, bicycle trails, streetlights and parks. Through proper use of the built environment, neighborhoods and communities can provide opportunities for recreational physical activity. Plus, children can engage in physical activity as a part of their daily lives, such as traveling to school or playing in local parks.

How, specifically, can built environment policies address issues like obesity and physical inactivity? Environment modifications that alleviate traffic accident rates are likely to lead to more walking and biking among children. Actions that reduce parental fears of accidents and crime will promote outdoor physical activity. Policies that encourage more active lifestyles among children and adolescents will enable them to achieve the recommended amount of daily physical activity through playing, walking or biking. By working with community partners, local, state and federal officials, ACSM members can help establish communities designed for activity and health.

What can ACSM members do to help?
  • Work with local officials to create and maintain accessible playgrounds, parks and green areas. Encourage officials to prioritize funding to low-income neighborhoods, ensuring that all children and adolescents have access to safe and enjoyable play opportunities. Funding should also support built environment goals, such as building sidewalks in new and existing neighborhoods to create safe routes to schools and neighborhood parks.
  • Promote legislation that allows communities to create programs and make environmental improvements that support a child’s ability to commute to school by walking or biking. Ensure that school corporations consider children’s transportation options when identifying school sites.
  • Advocate for laws and regulations to create or expand efforts that promote active living. Federal programs can provide funding to states to incorporate these principles into planning and zoning standards. State and local governments should examine planning and zoning efforts to ensure that children’s ability to walk and play safely is a key priority.
  • Advocate funding for research on the impact of the built environment at neighborhood and community levels.
  • Become a leader for communities by serving on local boards that deal with zoning or built environment issues.