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Strategies for Physical Activity Through Community Design

Key points

  • Being physically active is one of the most important ways people can improve their health now and into the future.
  • Physical activity benefits people of all ages and abilities.
  • To increase physical activity, state and local organizations can implement policies and take action to connect activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations.
Gold bar with circle in the middle. Drawing of physical activity items in the circle.


Family of five walking on sidewalk in front of houses.
Safe places to walk are important community design elements.

Physical activity is one of the best things people of all ages can do to improve their health. It is vital for healthy aging and can reduce the burden of chronic diseases and prevent early death. Yet, only about 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 6 high school students fully meet the recommendations in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Access to safe places to play and walk, such as parks, safe streets, trails, and greenways, is important for physical activity. It is also important to be able to safely and easily walk, bike, or take transit to everyday destinations such as homes, workplaces, schools, parks, health care, and food outlets.

Additionally, many people from racial and ethnic minority groups and from rural areas are less likely to have access to these safe spaces. Historical land use as well as housing and transportation policies can contribute to limited access. People impacted by these disparities are also less likely to meet the physical activity recommendations.

Designing communities to provide access to these safe spaces for everyone helps increase physical activity and can provide better places to live. It can also help improve health equity.

Connect activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations


Implement policies and activities to connect pedestrian, bicycle, or transit transportation networks (called activity-friendly routes) to everyday destinations.

To align with the Community Preventive Services Task Force's built environment recommendation, increasing physical activity through community design needs to include at least one element from activity-friendly routes plus one element from everyday destinations. Possibilities for each are below.

Activity-Friendly Routes Everyday Destinations
These may include new or improved:
  • Street pattern design and connectivity, such as convenient, connected, and accessible streets that create many route options, shorter block lengths, and shorter crossing distances.
  • Pedestrian infrastructure, such as sidewalk networks that can include trails, traffic calming, intersection safety, street lighting, benches, public bathrooms, shade, and landscaping.
  • Bicycle infrastructure, such as bicycle networks that can include slow/safe streets, protected bikeways, trails, traffic calming, intersection safety, street lighting, public bathrooms, shade, and landscaping.
  • Public transit infrastructure and access, such as transit networks that include expanded services, times, and locations and public bathrooms that are safe and easy to access.
Plus symbol These may include increased:
  • Proximity to community or neighborhood destinations, such as homes, worksites, schools, parks, grocery stores, health care facilities, pharmacies, and other shops.
  • Mixed land use such as neighborhoods that combine restaurants, offices, housing, or shops.
  • Residential density to increase the variety of housing options in an area through compact community design and other approaches that reduce travel distances.
  • Parks and recreational facility access, such as parks and recreational facilities close to homes.

Potential state activities


* Designates short-term activities that may be accomplished in 1 to 2 years.

+ Designates activities that may take up to 5 years, depending on the organization's capacity, previous work in this area, and size of the project.

Create interdepartmental memoranda of understanding, interagency agreements, or staff-sharing agreements with key departments. Include the state’s transportation department as well as others represented in your cross-sectoral coalition. Meet to formalize the public health relationship and identify topics, projects, communication channels, and opportunities for collaboration.*

Provide technical assistance* on:

  • Community engagement and organizing
  • Coalition building
  • Needs assessment
  • Action planning
  • Evaluation

Provide or promote training to opinion leaders, state and local staff, and coalition members about increasing physical activity through community design.*

Work with Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) or Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) and state transportation departments to integrate health considerations into project scoring criteria. This will help projects with active transportation components get more weight. Help ensure connections with destinations. Consider focusing on high-need areas+, such as:

  • Places with limited networks of activity-friendly infrastructure.
  • Places at risk for pedestrian or bicyclist injuries or fatalities.
  • Places with inequities.

Work with state transportation departments, MPOs, and RPOs to track and improve walking, bicycling, and transit conditions. Work in places with population densities that support these activities.+

Work with partners to establish or update:

  • Master plans.
  • Land use and zoning policies and plans.
  • State pedestrian, bicycle, and parks and recreation plans.
  • Housing, conservation, or economic development plans.

Be sure to include equitable and inclusive access to physical activity as well as specific actions to carry out the plans.+

Person riding a bike in a bike lane next to a street.
Dedicated bike lanes can encourage physical activity.

Potential state and local activities

Establish, expand, or participate in a cross-sectoral coalition. Include:

  • People affected by inequities in community design.
  • Representatives of public health, transportation, community planning, and parks and recreation.
  • Leaders who can help with specific issues, such as:
    • Housing
    • Healthy food access
    • Early care and education, K–12 schools, and universities
    • Public safety and public works

Work with partners to conduct health equity assessments.* These could include an analysis of:

  • Active transportation and public transit access, convenience, and reliability.
  • Concerns about and strategies to prevent gentrification and displacement.
  • Park, trail, and greenway access and safety.

Work with a cross-sector team to complete the Active Communities Tool to assess your community design and create an action plan to make it more activity-friendly.*

Identify relevant state, regional, and local data. Use data on health conditions, health behaviors, and local capacity to carry out policies and plans to increase physical activity through community design. Prioritize communities with health disparities. For example:

  • Collect health data such as physical activity levels, weight status, chronic diseases and risk behaviors, or pedestrian and bicycle injuries and deaths.
  • Note health equity assessment findings, the number of champions or level of political consensus, existence of a cross-sectoral coalition or current action plan, experience with evaluation, or experience addressing health inequities.
  • Use mapping software when appropriate to identify areas where resources may best be focused.

Develop, tailor, and distribute culturally appropriate messages supporting active lifestyles. Messages should be developed and tested locally with intended audiences.*

Collaborate with partners to put into action new or improved plans and policies, activity-friendly districts, and/or other activities to create activity-friendly communities.+ Examples include:

  • Policies: Complete Streets, Safe Routes, and Vision Zero policies, including relevant city, school district, or parks and recreation department policies. Also includes policies to promote mixed land uses, transit-oriented development, and residential density.
  • Plans: General or comprehensive land use plans that address physical activity. Include specific actions to reach the goals and objectives. Examples include:
    • Active transportation, trails, and greenways master plans.
    • Complete Streets, Safe Routes for All, and Vision Zero action plans.
    • Incentives for activity-friendly project evaluation.
  • Projects: Pop-up or demonstration projects with evaluation measurement, such as:
    • Speed reduction, increased active travel, or use of new places.
    • Placemaking.
    • Bike racks, crosswalks, or traffic calming measures.
    • New or improved sidewalks, protected bike lanes, or transit routes.
  • Codes: Zoning, building, subdivision, or other codes, including those that integrate land use regulations with other municipal goals, or regulate the form of buildings rather than land uses, such as Form-Based Codes and activity-friendly districts.
  • Programs: Safe Routes to School or Safe Routes to Parks.
  • Systems: Increase transit, bicycle, and pedestrian network connectivity and access, park coverage and accessibility, and incentives for activity-friendly project evaluation or supportive land development.
  • Community ideas and priorities: Innovative ideas and key priorities to design communities for physical activity that are community-sourced and created, demonstrating that residents are valued and appreciated.

Track the passage of plans and policies related to physical activity. Document progress made to carry out the projects identified in these plans and policies.+

Potential local activities

Conduct walk/move audits with local decision-makers and community members. Select community members who represent diverse perspectives, such as age, ability, race/ethnicity, gender, and income.*

Conduct and evaluate inclusive demonstration projects. The goal is permanent infrastructure changes that lead to policy, systems, and environmental changes, such as connecting active transportation networks and destinations. Measure the impact of the demonstration project on outcomes, such as speed reduction, increased active transportation, or use of new places.*

Rate access to parks, trails, greenways, and recreational facilities and work with community coalitions to create or improve safe access to these locations.*

Assess concerns related to increasing physical activity through community design by engaging community organizations and experts who can address these concerns.*

Provide training or technical assistance to coalition members and opinion leaders on activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations.*

Work with partners to establish or update comprehensive plans. Prioritize equitable and inclusive access to physical activity as well as specific actions.+ Examples include plans covering:

  • Regional and local areas
  • Land use and zoning
  • Pedestrian and bicycle use
  • Parks and recreation
  • Housing
  • Conservation or economic development.

Work with partners to update zoning codes to include activity-friendly design. Examples include form-based codes and activity-friendly districts.+

Working together

Active Transportation Spotlight: Nashville Area Regional Transportation Plan
The Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization added project scoring criteria related to health, safety, and social equity to its regional plans. The goal was to increase opportunities for walking, rolling, and biking. Now, the majority of projects selected for funding should include a bicycling or walking component.

Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Supports Local Physical Activity in Indiana
The Indiana State Department of Health worked with partners to conduct more than 40 workshops on a variety of topics, including how to create pedestrian and bicycle plans. They also provided $20,000 each to 13 communities to prepare bicycle and pedestrian plans.

See more real-world examples.


Active Communities Tool
Helps committed, cross-sector teams create an action plan to improve community environments that promote physical activity and meet the needs of their community.

A Guide to Building Healthy Streets: How Public Health Can Help Implement Complete Streets
Focuses on how public health practitioners can work with other agencies to implement Complete Streets. Includes model Complete Streets policy language, information on how to address equity, community examples, and key resources.

Built Environment Approaches Combining Transportation System Interventions with Land Use and Environmental Design
Explains how to combine interventions to improve pedestrian or bicycle transportation systems with land use and environmental design interventions to increase physical activity.

Everyday Destinations blog series
Describes 15 planning approaches that can be used in small and rural communities.

Fostering Healthy Communities Through Planning and Public Health Collaboration
Shows how planners and public health professionals can work together to create healthy communities.

Public Health Action Guide: Public Transit
Promotes the health benefits of expanding public transit options and shares actions for public health professionals.

See more resources.


Active transportation refers to any self-propelled, human-powered mode of transportation, such as walking, rolling, or bicycling.

Activity-friendly routes include pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit transportation systems that offer a direct and convenient connection with everyday destinations and physical protection from cars and that make it easier to cross the street safely. These can include well-maintained sidewalks, crosswalks, protected bicycle lanes, multi-use trails, and pedestrian public transit bridges.

Everyday destinations are places people go frequently. Some examples include homes, workplaces, grocery stores, schools, libraries, parks, restaurants, cultural and natural landmarks, or health care facilities.

Increasing physical activity through community design is planning and designing communities with activity-friendly routes that offer a direct and convenient way to actively reach everyday destinations.

Land use refers to how land is used and what can be built on it. Land use policy goals that support increased physical activity include:

  • Mixed land use, such as neighborhoods that combine restaurants, offices, housing, or shops
  • Increased residential density, such as sustainable, compact development with housing options that include smaller and multi-family homes.
  • Community destinations that are accessible and close to each other.
  • Access to public parks or public recreational facilities.

See more definitions.

Cross-cutting areas

Communication tips to support program efforts.

Evaluation framework for making evaluations useful, feasible, ethical, accurate, and culturally responsive.

Health equity tools to help remove barriers to health.

Additional priority strategies

Breastfeeding Continuity of Care

Early Care and Education (ECE) Policies and Activities

Family Healthy Weight Programs

Food Service and Nutrition Guidelines

Voucher Incentives and Produce Prescription Programs