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Key Message: Designing communities that support physical activity is likely to produce a wide variety of additional benefits, ranging from mental health to environmental sustainability and economics.

Source: Sallis, et al. (2015). Co-benefits of designing communities for active living: an exploration of literature. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 12:30 doi:10.1186/s12966-015-0188-2

Purpose: To reverse the global epidemic of physical inactivity that is responsible for more than 5 million deaths per year, many groups recommend creating “activity-friendly environments.” Such environments may have other benefits, beyond facilitating physical activity, but these potential co-benefits have not been well described. The purpose of the present paper is to explore a wide range of literature and conduct an initial summary of evidence on co-benefits of activity-friendly environments.

Evidence: Five physical activity settings were defined: parks/open space/trails, urban design, transportation, schools, and workplaces/buildings. Several evidence-based activity-friendly features were identified for each setting. Six potential outcomes/co-benefits were searched: physical health, mental health, social benefits, safety/injury prevention, environmental sustainability, and economics. A total of 418 higher-quality findings were summarized. The overall summary indicated 22 of 30 setting by outcome combinations showed “strong” evidence of co-benefits. Each setting had strong evidence of at least three co-benefits, with only one occurrence of a net negative effect. All settings showed the potential to contribute to environmental sustainability and economic benefits. Specific environmental features with the strongest evidence of multiple co-benefits were park proximity, mixed land use, trees/greenery, accessibility and street connectivity, building design, and workplace physical activity policies/programs. The exploration revealed substantial evidence that designing community environments that make physical activity attractive and convenient is likely to produce additional important benefits. The extent of the evidence justifies systematic reviews and additional research to fill gaps.

One notable finding was that economic benefits of activity-friendly designs were documented for all five physical activity settings. Based on the specific studies identified, many groups could enjoy economic benefits of activity-friendly environments, including governments (due to reduced spending on infrastructure), homeowners, real estate developers, health insurance companies, employers, retailers, commercial property owners, and taxpayers. This is an extremely broad range of beneficiaries, and some of them may not be aware of the economic benefits of activity-friendly environments.

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