Physical Activity and Public Health

Cambridge bike bridgeLast updated April 2018

Physical activity reduces the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and the health of most people in the UK and many other countries would be improved if the population were to become more physically active.

However, efforts to bring this about have met with little success to date. One reason may be that the environments we have created for people to live in — our cities, transport systems and workplaces, for example — are not sufficiently conducive to an active lifestyle. Changing the economic, physical and social factors that influence our behaviour is possible, but more scientific evidence about the effects of doing so is needed to guide policy and practice.

The aim of this research programme is to investigate the effects of environmental or policy changes on population physical activity patterns. We use a combination of epidemiological and social science research methods to study what happens when people’s circumstances change — for example, when new public transport, cycling or walking routes are provided or when people move into a new neighbourhood. This research is important because it enables us to understand which approaches to changing the environment are more or less beneficial to health, who is likely to benefit most from them and which offer the best value for money. Our findings can therefore make an important contribution to shaping policy to improve the health of the population.

On this page

Programme leader: Dr David Ogilvie

Group members

Group members in January 2018, from left to right: Nick Bundle, Lou Foley, Anna Le Gouais, David Ogilvie, Jenna Panter and Lindsey Smith.

Current group members

Former group members

Programme publications

Selected recent highlights:

  • Foley L, Dumuid D, Atkin A, Olds T, Ogilvie D. Patterns of health behaviour associated with active travel: a compositional data analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2018; 15: 26. [PubMed]
  • Nimegeer A, Thomson H, Foley L, Hilton S, Crawford F, Ogilvie D, on behalf of the M74 study team. Experiences of connectivity and severance in the wake of a new motorway: implications for health and well-being. Soc Sci Med 2018; 197: 78-86. [PubMed]
  • Mytton O, Ogilvie D, Griffin S, Brage S, Wareham N, Panter J. Associations of active commuting with body fat and visceral adipose tissue: a cross-sectional population based study in the UK. Prev Med 2018; 106: 86-93. [PubMed]
  • Panter J, Guell C, Prins R, Ogilvie D. Physical activity and the environment: conceptual review and framework for intervention research. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2017; 14: 156. [PubMed]
  • Prins R, Foley L, Mutrie N, Ogilvie D, on behalf of the M74 study team. Effects of urban motorways on physical activity and sedentary behaviour in local residents: a natural experimental study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2017;14:102. [PubMed]

Key programme studies

Scientific summary

Drawing on a broad social-ecological conceptual framework, this research programme aims to elucidate the potential of population-level approaches to the promotion of active living by evaluating the effects of environmental and policy interventions and understanding related patterns and mechanisms of behaviour change. The programme is currently focused on investigating approaches that involve modifying the physical environment or influencing wider determinants of active living in the social or economic environments.

The programme aims to address two main concurrent research themes:

Evaluating the overall and distributional effects of interventions

It is important to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the effects of interventions in order to discriminate between promising and ineffective approaches, identify those most likely to benefit the least active or the least healthy, compare the cost-effectiveness of different approaches, and inform the accurate modelling of their ultimate health impacts. This entails the evaluation of actual environmental and policy interventions in a variety of settings, particularly by means of natural experimental studies, and cumulating evidence from multiple studies.

Understanding related patterns and mechanisms of behaviour change

It is also necessary to understand why interventions are or are not effective, for whom and in what circumstances so they can be appropriately targeted and tailored. Environmental and policy interventions are often somewhat specific to their contexts, which presents a challenge for deriving generalisable causal inference from evaluative studies. Addressing this challenge entails the analysis and synthesis of quantitative and qualitative data from natural experimental and other observational datasets collected in a variety of settings.

The programme aims to provide a significant test-bed for and methodological development related to MRC guidance on using natural experiments to evaluate population health interventions. We aim to provide empirical quantitative and qualitative inputs into the economic appraisal and evaluation of environmental and policy interventions, the development of models of physical activity behaviours, and the modelling of the ultimate health impacts of current and future interventions. We also aim to produce research outputs with actionable messages for policymakers, particularly through evidence synthesis and by contributing evidence to NICE public health guidance and other translational processes.

This is a core research programme of the MRC Epidemiology Unit.

Selected texts that inspire or reflect our approach

See also the selected reading list on natural experimental methods below.

Thinking aloud about our research

Selected recent blogs, commentaries and presentations:

Selected reading list on natural experimental methods

Introducing the idea

  • Bor J. Capitalizing on natural experiments to improve our understanding of population health. Am J Public Health 2016; 106: 1388-1389. [PubMed]Petticrew M. Sinners, preachers and natural experiments. Int J Epidemiol 2011; 40: 454-456. [PubMed]
  • Petticrew M, Cummins S, Ferrell C, Findlay A, Higgins C, Hoy C, Kearns A, Sparks L. Natural experiments: an underused tool for public health? Public Health 2005; 119: 751-757. [PubMed]
  • Victora C, Habicht J-P, Bryce J. Evidence-based public health: moving beyond randomized trials. Am J Public Health 2004; 94: 400–405. [PubMed]

MRC guidance

Examples of completed studies

  • Ogilvie D, Foley L, Nimegeer A, Olsen J, Mitchell R, Thomson H, Crawford F, Prins R, Hilton S, Jones A, Humphreys D, Sahlqvist S, Mutrie N. Health impacts of the M74 urban motorway extension: a mixed-method natural experimental study. Public Health Res 2017; 5: 3. [PubMed]
  • Goodman A, Van Sluijs E, Ogilvie D. Impact of offering cycle training in schools upon cycling behaviour: a natural experimental study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2016; 13: 34. [PubMed]
  • Panter J, Heinen E, Mackett R, Ogilvie D. Impact of new transport infrastructure on walking, cycling and physical activity. Am J Prev Med 2016; 50: e45-e53. [PubMed]
  • Ogilvie D, Panter J, Guell C, Jones A, Mackett R, Griffin S. Health impacts of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway: a natural experimental study. Public Health Res 2016; 4: 1. [NIHR]
  • Goodman A, Sahlqvist S, Ogilvie D, on behalf of the iConnect consortium. New walking and cycling routes and increased physical activity: one- and two-year findings from the UK iConnect study. Am J Public Health 2014; 104: e38-e46. [PubMed]
  • Goodman A, Panter J, Sharp S, Ogilvie D. Effectiveness and equity impacts of town-wide cycling initiatives in England: a longitudinal, controlled natural experimental study. Soc Sci Med 2013; 97: 228–237. [PubMed]
  • Fuller D, Sahlqvist S, Cummins S, Ogilvie D. The impact of public transport strikes on use of a bicycle share programme in London: interrupted time series design. Prev Med 2012; 54: 74-76. [PubMed]

Concepts and methods

  • Various authors. Series on quasi-experimental study designs. J Clin Epidemiol 2017.
  • Humphreys D, Panter J, Ogilvie D. Questioning the application of risk of bias tools in appraising evidence from natural experimental studies: critical reflections on Benton et al., IJBNPA 2016. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2017; 14: 49. [PubMed]
  • Humphreys D, Panter J, Sahlqvist S, Goodman A, Ogilvie D. Changing the environment to improve population health: a framework for considering exposure in natural experimental studies. J Epidemiol Community Health 2016: doi:10.1136/jech-2015-206381. [PubMed]
  • Panter J, Ogilvie D, on behalf of the iConnect consortium. Theorising and testing environmental pathways to behaviour change: natural experimental study of the perception and use of new infrastructure to promote walking and cycling in local communities. BMJ Open 2015; 5: e007593. [PubMed]
  • Mayne S, Auchincloss A, Michael Y. Impact of policy and built environment changes on obesity-related outcomes: a systematic review of naturally occurring experiments. Obes Rev 2015; 16: 362-375. [PubMed]
  • Rockers P, Røttingen J, Shemilt I, Tugwell P, Bärnighausen T. Inclusion of quasi-experimental studies in systematic reviews of health systems research. Health Pol 2015; 119: 511-521.  [PubMed]
  • Martin A, Ogilvie D, Suhrcke M. Evaluating causal relationships between urban built environment characteristics and obesity:  a methodological review of observational studies. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2014; 11: 142. [PubMed]
  • Mytton O, Eyles H, Ogilvie D. Evaluating the health impacts of food and beverage taxes. Curr Obes Rep 2014; 10.1007/s13679-014-0123-x. [Springer]
  • Ogilvie D, Bull F, Cooper A, Rutter H, Adams E, Brand C, Ghali K, Jones T, Mutrie N, Powell J, Preston J, Sahlqvist S, Song Y, on behalf of the iConnect consortium. Evaluating the travel, physical activity and carbon impacts of a ‘natural experiment’ in the provision of new walking and cycling infrastructure: methods for the core module of the iConnect study. BMJ Open 2012; 2: e000694. [PubMed]
  • Ogilvie D, Bull F, Powell J, Cooper A, Brand C, Mutrie N, Preston J, Rutter H, on behalf of the iConnect consortium. An applied ecological framework for evaluating infrastructure to promote walking and cycling: the iConnect study. Am J Public Health 2011; 101: 473–481. [PubMed]
  • Ogilvie D, Griffin S, Jones A, Mackett R, Guell C, Panter J, Jones N, Cohn S, Yang L, Chapman C. Commuting and health in Cambridge: a study of a ‘natural experiment’ in the provision of new transport infrastructure. BMC Public Health 2010; 10: 703. [PubMed]
  • Ogilvie D, Mitchell R, Mutrie N, Petticrew M, Platt S. Evaluating health effects of transport interventions: methodologic case study. Am J Prev Med 2006; 31: 118-126. [PubMed]


Other key programme resources

Key programme collaborators

External links

See also Public Health Modelling