Capturing exposure in environmental health research: challenges and opportunities of different activity space models

Int J Health Geogr. 2018 Jul 28;17(1):29. doi: 10.1186/s12942-018-0149-5.


Background: The built environment health promotion has attracted notable attention across a wide spectrum of health-related research over the past decade. However, the results about the contextual effects on health and PA are highly heterogeneous. The discrepancies between the results can potentially be partly explained by the diverse use of different spatial units of analysis in assessing individuals' exposure to various environment characteristics. This study investigated whether different residential and activity space units of analysis yield distinct results regarding the association between the built environment and health. In addition, this study examines the challenges and opportunities of the different spatial units of analysis for environmental health-related research.

Methods: Two common residential units of analysis and two novel activity space models were used to examine older adults' wellbeing in relation to the built environment features in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, Finland. An administrative unit, 500 m residential buffer, home range model and individualized residential exposure model were used to assess the associations between the built environment and wellbeing of respondent's (n = 844).

Results: All four different spatial units of analysis yield distinct results regarding the associations between the built environment characteristics and wellbeing. A positive association between green space and health was found only when exposure was assessed with individualized residential exposure model. Walkability index and the length of pedestrian and bicycle roads were found to positively correlate with perceived wellbeing measures only with a home range model. Additionally, all units of analysis differed from each other in terms of size, shape, and how they capture different contextual measures.

Conclusions: The results show that different spatial units of analysis result in considerably different measurements of built environment. In turn, the differences derived from the use of different spatial units seem to considerably affect the associations between environment characteristics and wellbeing measures. Although it is not easy to argue about the correctness of these measurements, what is evident is that they can reveal different wellbeing outcomes. While some methods are especially usable to determine the availability of environmental opportunities that promote active travel and the related health outcomes, others can provide us with insight into the mechanisms how the actual exposure to green structure can enhance wellbeing.

Keywords: Activity space; Built environment; Exposure; Neighborhood; PPGIS; Wellbeing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data
  • Environment Design* / statistics & numerical data
  • Environmental Health / methods*
  • Environmental Health / statistics & numerical data
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Female
  • Finland / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Spatial Analysis*
  • Walking / physiology*
  • Walking / statistics & numerical data