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Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to assess the role of the built environment in influencing obesity: a glossary

Lukar E Thornton1*, Jamie R Pearce2 and Anne M Kavanagh3

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria, 3125, Australia

2 Institute of Geography, School of Geosciences, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH8 9XP, UK

3 Centre for Women's Health, Gender and Society, Melbourne School of Population Health, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 3010, Australia

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011, 8:71  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-8-71

Published: 1 July 2011


Features of the built environment are increasingly being recognised as potentially important determinants of obesity. This has come about, in part, because of advances in methodological tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS has made the procurement of data related to the built environment easier and given researchers the flexibility to create a new generation of environmental exposure measures such as the travel time to the nearest supermarket or calculations of the amount of neighbourhood greenspace. Given the rapid advances in the availability of GIS data and the relative ease of use of GIS software, a glossary on the use of GIS to assess the built environment is timely. As a case study, we draw on aspects the food and physical activity environments as they might apply to obesity, to define key GIS terms related to data collection, concepts, and the measurement of environmental features.