Academic journal article URISA Journal

Using Global Position Systems (GPS) and Physical Activity Monitors to Assess the Built Environment

Academic journal article URISA Journal

Using Global Position Systems (GPS) and Physical Activity Monitors to Assess the Built Environment

Article excerpt


According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 66 percent of the U.S. adult population is either overweight (body mass index of 25 to 29.9) or obese (BMI >= 30). These percentages are approximately twice the amount reported in health surveys taken in the mid-1970s. While there is debate regarding if this increase in prevalence constitutes an epidemic, it is widely accepted that insufficient individual physical activity and exercise is one of the contributing factors to weight gain. The CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) found that in 2005 the national average of individuals participating in the recommended amount of weekly physical activity was only 48 percent, while 37.7 percent reported an insufficient amount of activity and 14.2 percent reported they were inactive. Another study reported that "sixty-two percent of adults never participated in any type of vigorous leisure-time physical activity" (Pleis and Lethbridge-Cejku 2006).

The fact that more than half of the U.S. population does not undertake a sufficient amount of physical activity calls to question why more people aren't physically active when many communities have been investing significant funding to improve the outdoor infrastructure (parks, ball fields, trails) that facilitates and promotes opportunities for physical activity?

This and other similar questions have brought to the forefront investigations into how the built environment affects an individual's participation in leisure-time physical activity. The executive summary for the 2004 "Obesity and the Built Environment: Improving Public Health Through Community Design" Conference in Washington, D.C., found that the "rapid increase in obesity over the past 30 years strongly suggests that environmental influences are responsible for this trend."

Report #282, Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity: Examining the Evidence, published by the Transportation Research Board in January 2005, states that there is "available empirical evidence" linking a person's physical activity with the built environment. The report further states that additional studies into the "causal relationship between the built environment and physical activity are needed" and that future research should include "residential location preferences, and characteristics of the built environment as determinants of physical activity."

To identify, visualize, and understand this relationship between physical activity and the built environment, spatial analysis and data collection tools such as geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) can be used.

These tools can provide an accurate map with which proximity, distribution, and connectedness can be measured. And, when combined with physical activity monitors and employed in participatory supported research, they can become even more useful measures.

The remainder of this paper focuses on one component of a study investigating the relationship between physical activity, trail use, and adjacent vegetation. In this component of the study, spatial, individual physical activity, and weather data were collected and processed and then visualized and analyzed in context with the built environment.


To better understand the role that vegetation or, more specifically, the urban forest has on an individual's selection and use of community recreation trails, the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council funded a study by Iowa State University Extension to investigate the relationship between vegetation patterns and physical activity. The research, conducted between July 2005 and July 2007 in Ames, Iowa, sought to answer the following questions:

* Does vegetation adjacent to a trail impact the use * of the trail?

* Is vegetation variety an important aspect of route selection? …

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