Local places for physical activity: how important are they?
There is significant evidence for the benefits of a physically active lifestyle, including reduced risks of developing many non-communicable diseases. The identification of the local environmental determinants and the general population’s perceptions of the local environment gives an opportunity to make achievable and sustainable changes to population levels of physical activity. There is limited research in the New Zealand setting on associations between local environment and physical activity.
This PhD thesis includes a literature review of national and international literature and three studies examining perceived national and local environmental measures, as well as objective measures of the local environment and their associations with adult recreational physical activity.
Firstly, this thesis undertook a secondary analysis of data collected in the Obstacles To Action (OTA) survey, a nationally representative mail survey of adults in New Zealand (n=8038). The analysis focused on measures of the perceived accessibility of physical activity resources and settings, environmental barriers, and self-reported physical activity. The OTA survey showed that 51 percent of New Zealand adults are inactive or engage in insufficient physical activity to maintain health. Consistent with other international research findings, perceptions of local neighbourhood characteristics were found to be significantly associated with physical activity participation. This analysis aimed to consider the multiple modes and intensities of physical activity in which adults engage, and found significant associations between physical activity categories and perceived accessibility of physical activity resources. Also important, but to a lesser extent, was the impact of perceived environmental barriers on inactivity.
Secondly, this thesis undertook the Active Friendly Environment (AFE) survey (n=1,983), using a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) methodology. The survey questionnaire contained questions on: urban environment perceptions, physical activity facility accessibility perceptions and usage, measures of levels of physical activity, enablers and barriers to undertaking physical activity, and demographic measures. The survey showed that 38 percent of North Shore City (NSC) participants’ reported being insufficiently active. The results of the analysis of the AFE survey were generally consistent with the OTA survey; the primary exceptions were categories of physical activity facilities that were known to be well promoted locally.
Lastly, the AFE survey was linked to a NSC geographic information system (GIS) database, containing information about street networks, local neighbourhood features, and recreational facilities. Measures of accessibility to the coast, physical activity facilities, and urban design were calculated from the GIS database, using network distances and network buffers. The only significant objective measures associated with accumulating sufficient physical activity were street connectivity and coastal access. Comparing perceived and objective accessibility measures found very little concordance, except for aquatic sites, which were predominantly coastal spaces.
These results demonstrate that promoting and maintaining existing local neighbourhood resources such as coastal access, as well as investments in public infrastructure where resources are not available, can contribute towards increasing physical activity and improving health among New Zealand adults.