CEDAR is collaborating on FAST (the Four hundred Area STudy), a Wellcome Trust commissioned research project being undertaken by a consortium of academics (including the University of Exeter, University of East Anglia, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Glasgow) and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
FAST is feasibility study to explore whether the built environment is associated with physical activity. To fully understand the extent to which the built environment explains variations in physical activity levels requires the thorough characterization of physical activity patterns and the detailed characterization of the environment. To date this level of characterization of environmental exposures and physical activity outcomes has not been undertaken in the UK.
The feasibility study therefore aimed to test a research design and protocol which, if found to be successful, could then be adopted in a larger study to provide compelling and robust evidence on the extent to which the built environment influences physical activity and the nature of this affect.
The methods used in the feasibility study to explore the multifaceted effects of the built environment on physical activity included a Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) survey, GPS and accelerometery data being collected from respondents and analysis of local areas using street audits and geo-referenced routine data. A qualitative component is also included, with in-depth interviews with a subset of participants which aims to explore their experiences of taking part in the survey and their conceptualisation of their local space, place, journeys and activities.
FAST has recently finished data collection. In total, 1084 adults have taken part in the study. Each person has completed a questionnaire about their physical activity habits and we have recorded their activity levels across 7 days using an accelerometer. A quarter of our participants were also asked to wear a GPS device to record the locations they visited. We have now merged this GPS data with the accelerometery, and this gives us 1,600 person-hours of matched data. We have also developed a street audit tool that uses Google StreetView technology to virtually ‘walk’ around the neighbourhood and audit the supportiveness of the street environment for physical activity.
Our findings from the pilot show how vital it is to use GPS if we want to gain a full understanding of the role of the environment in determining physical activity behaviours, and that the traditional approach of defining fixed-distance neighbourhoods around homes will fail to capture the context of most of the physical activity undertaken amongst study participants. The work undertaken in FAST to date has also shown it is feasible to collect rich contextual data on a large sample of participants, and in 2012 we will explore funding options to roll-out FAST across the UK.