Environmental determinants of physical activity and dietary behaviour

A crowd of people, blurredTo accurately assess how people’s physical activity and diet is related to where they live and work, we need to be able to more accurately measure their movements and behaviours.

Using a number of methods, including the innovative use of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information System (GIS) to measure research participants’ use of space and movement, this research programme studies the role of the environment as a factor influencing physical activity and dietary behaviour.

Programme lead: Prof Andy Jones

Group members

Dr Emma Coombes

Programme studies

Programme publications

Other key programme resources

Scientific summary

This programme studies the role of the environment as a determinant of physical activity and dietary behaviour.

Methodologies for understanding the dynamic use of the environment for physical activity and dietary behaviours
Research on the putative environmental determinants of diet and physical activity behaviours has been limited by the two major assumptions. First, researchers have assumed that the activity spaces of individuals can be appropriately represented by the delineation of ‘neighbourhood’ boundaries around their homes. Within defined neighbourhood boundaries, a second assumption has been that that the presence of food outlets and opportunities for physical activity represents a valid measure of their accessibility and can thus be taken as a proxy for their likely use. These assumptions are driven by the fact that information is often not available on the actual movement patterns of study participants and their use of the environment. To overcome these limitations, study methods need to be advanced so as to be able to capture actual (as opposed to assumed) use of the environment for physical activity and dietary behaviours and also to consider the dynamic nature of human-environment interactions that mean, for example, different environments may be important at different times of the day, days of the week, or even seasons of the year.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can record the spatial activity patterns of individuals, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map the locations of opportunities for food purchase and for physical activity. The output from GPS devices can be linked with data on food purchasing and consumption and also with physical activity.

The key issues that this programme we will address include the identification of travel mode and estimation of physical activity intensity from GPS data, linkage of dietary data with actual exposure to the food environment to better understand the environmental influences on dietary behaviour, integration of GPS data with Agent Based Modelling (ABM) techniques to improve modelling of the dynamic space-time nature of interactions with the environment, and the development of methods to employ GPS to provide new information on changes in use of the environment in intervention evaluations.

The influence of weather and climate on physical activity and dietary behaviours
The UK exhibits marked variation in weather and day-length over the year and dark evenings and cold, wet weather are frequently cited as barriers to physical activity, and are likely drivers of the seasonal fluctuations observed in children’s physical activity levels. However, not all countries with large climatic and day-length differences between seasons exhibit seasonality in physical activity levels to the same degree, suggesting that adaptations to adverse conditions are possible and that policies or facilities may be put in place to help prevent seasonal decline in activity in the UK. We have studied the relationship between rainfall, school policies and physical activity and the impact of evening length on participation in different types of activities and will expand these enquiries in the coming years.