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Build Environments That Encourage Youth Activity, Experts Say

By guest blogger Gina Cairney


Where young people work, live, and play, otherwise known as the built environment, can have an impact on their overall health. That's the key finding in the midcourse report on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans shared by health and transportation experts during an online discussion Tuesday.

The key takeaway message: build an environment that encourages physical activity among youth, said Robin McKinnon, a health policy specialist at the Bethesda, Md.,-based National Cancer Institute.

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggests that all children and adolescents engage in at least an hour of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which the Institute of Medicine says could be achieved during regular school hours.

Despite the importance of regular physical activity and its effects on long-term health, evidence shows physical activity levels among youth are low, and decline with age, the midcourse report states.

By focusing on the built environment, McKinnon said that communities can take steps to encourage more youth to incorporate physical activity in their daily lives through changes such as improving pedestrian safety, and increasing access to parks and recreational facilities.

Change is not easy, but partnerships across multiple levels allowed New Jersey to successfully improve the state's overall health, said Elise Bremer-Nei and Janet Heroux, from the state's departments of transportation and health, during the discussion. Achieving the state's health goal was only possible when state agencies worked together with local businesses and communities, the women said, highlighting how important partnerships are when trying to achieve a common goal.

The midcourse report, released in December 2012, builds on the 2008 guidelines and provides key findings and recommendations focused on key settings recognized to have potential for increasing physical activity in youth.

A typical school day lasts six to seven hours, which the report suggests makes it an ideal, and realistic setting to provide physical activity opportunities for students.

Implementing multi-component school-based programs, such as an enhanced physical education class, or class activity breaks, could increase physical activity levels among youth. Offering active transportation options, like walking or biking to school, can also increase physical activity.

Preschool and child care centers are also important settings with opportunities, the report found.

Increasing time spent outside or providing portable play equipment are some examples of how to get more young children active. The report also suggests providing staff with training in structured physical activity sessions, and how to integrate active teaching and learning in their daily routines.

Other settings, such as the home and primary care facilities, have limited evidence on specific strategies to increase physical activity, but the report suggests these areas have the potential to engage youth in physical activity.

Research in other areas will also be needed to see how different types of interventions can be best applied to specific population groups across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the report states.

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PHOTO: Students hold their position during a yoga class in December, 2012, at Capri Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. —Gregory Bull/AP-File

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