Examining Opportunities and Barriers to Physical Activity and Healthy Eating

The goal of the project is to understand how people’s decisions to make healthy choices are partly shaped by features of the community where they live.

Key Terms

Built Environment

includes features in the community like:


  • parks and green spaces,
  • residential areas,
  • public transit,
  • indoor and outdoor activity options,
  • restaurants and grocery stores options,
  • how a community is maintained, and
  • how the roads and sidewalks are designed.

Social Environment

includes features in the community like:


  • having a good neighbour,
  • a feeling of friendliness, and
  • feelings of comfort/safety.


We all hear about the obesity epidemic and how different factors in today’s society affect or limit people’s choices about physical activity and the food they eat. One solution is to redesign communities to make them better places to live active, healthy lives.

Creating healthy community environments can be challenging. Sometimes, making changes to community environments to support physical activity and healthy eating may seem diffcult or vague. For example, it is not always feasible to add sidewalks in established communities or eliminate fast food venues. Despite such roadblocks, there are many ways that communities can initiate small changes to improve opportunities or break down barriers for healthy, active living.

The Project

The Community Health and the Built Environment project has helped researchers and community partners understand how people’s decisions to make healthy choices are partly shaped by features in the community where they live. The project took place in four communities throughout Alberta:

  • Bonnyville (population of about 6, 000),
  • North Central Edmonton (made up of 11 contiguous neighbourhoods; population of about 40,000),
  • Medicine Hat and Redcliff (population of about 6 5,000), and
  • St.Paul (population of about 6, 000).

What We Did

  • Identified physical activity and healthy eating resources in the community

    By observing community environments, we were able to better understand what physical activity and healthy eating resources were (or were not) available in the community environment.

  • Gathered residents’ perceptions of community environments

    Picture taking and storytelling with community residents helped researchers better understand how residents perceived opportunities and barriers for health in the community.

  • Created connections

    By partnering with community stakeholders, we worked together to develop, implement and evaluate community driven projects. The projects created opportunities and broke down barriers for physical activity and healthy eating in the community.

  • Ensured relevancy for the community

    Ongoing communication with community partners helped to guide future directions of the project. The communication also helped to ensure that the results were meaningful for the community, as well as for research.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Need to look at built and social environments in combination.
  • Engage community in all aspects of initiatives/programs to foster local action.
  • Small, incremental changes can have a large impact.
  • Share information and create connections with multiple levels of stakeholders.
  • Collaborate around shared goals.
  • By doing these things together we can support the creation of healthy community environments