Measuring the built environment for physical activity: state of the science

Am J Prev Med. 2009 Apr;36(4 Suppl):S99-123.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2009.01.005.


Physical inactivity is one of the most important public health issues in the U.S. and internationally. Increasingly, links are being identified between various elements of the physical-or built-environment and physical activity. To understand the impact of the built environment on physical activity, the development of high-quality measures is essential. Three categories of built environment data are being used: (1) perceived measures obtained by telephone interview or self-administered questionnaires; (2) observational measures obtained using systematic observational methods (audits); and (3) archival data sets that are often layered and analyzed with GIS. This review provides a critical assessment of these three types of built-environment measures relevant to the study of physical activity. Among perceived measures, 19 questionnaires were reviewed, ranging in length from 7 to 68 questions. Twenty audit tools were reviewed that cover community environments (i.e., neighborhoods, cities), parks, and trails. For GIS-derived measures, more than 50 studies were reviewed. A large degree of variability was found in the operationalization of common GIS measures, which include population density, land-use mix, access to recreational facilities, and street pattern. This first comprehensive examination of built-environment measures demonstrates considerable progress over the past decade, showing diverse environmental variables available that use multiple modes of assessment. Most can be considered first-generation measures, so further development is needed. In particular, further research is needed to improve the technical quality of measures, understand the relevance to various population groups, and understand the utility of measures for science and public health.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Environment Design / trends
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Exercise*
  • Forecasting
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Promotion / methods
  • Humans
  • Leisure Activities / classification*
  • Management Audit / methods*
  • Motor Activity*
  • Physical Fitness
  • Population Dynamics
  • Recreation
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design*
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • Social Environment
  • United States