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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

In search of causality: a systematic review of the relationship between the built environment and physical activity among adults

Gavin R McCormack* and Alan Shiell

Author Affiliations

Population Health Intervention Research Centre, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011, 8:125  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-8-125

Published: 13 November 2011

Abstract

Background

Empirical evidence suggests that an association between the built environment and physical activity exists. This evidence is mostly derived from cross-sectional studies that do not account for other causal explanations such as neighborhood self-selection. Experimental and quasi-experimental designs can be used to isolate the effect of the built environment on physical activity, but in their absence, statistical techniques that adjust for neighborhood self-selection can be used with cross-sectional data. Previous reviews examining the built environment-physical activity relationship have not differentiated among findings based on study design. To deal with self-selection, we synthesized evidence regarding the relationship between objective measures of the built environment and physical activity by including in our review: 1) cross-sectional studies that adjust for neighborhood self-selection and 2) quasi-experiments.

Method

In September 2010, we searched for English-language studies on built environments and physical activity from all available years in health, leisure, transportation, social sciences, and geographical databases. Twenty cross-sectional and 13 quasi-experimental studies published between 1996 and 2010 were included in the review.

Results

Most associations between the built environment and physical activity were in the expected direction or null. Land use mix, connectivity and population density and overall neighborhood design were however, important determinants of physical activity. The built environment was more likely to be associated with transportation walking compared with other types of physical activity including recreational walking. Three studies found an attenuation in associations between built environment characteristics and physical activity after accounting for neighborhood self-selection.

Conclusion

More quasi-experiments that examine a broader range of environmental attributes in relation to context-specific physical activity and that measure changes in the built environment, neighborhood preferences and their effect on physical activity are needed.

Keywords:
urban form; causation; neighborhood self-selection; walkability; physical activity