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The report recommendations focus on four priority areas which also form the pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign: (1) empowering parents and caregivers; (2) providing healthy food in schools; (3) improving access to healthy, affordable foods; and (4) increasing physical activity, which we believe includes trails and greenways as well as "safe routes to school."

arrow Download the full report on Childhood Obesity (pdf 3.2 mb)

arrow Read First Lady Michelle Obama launches Let’s Move! campaign


Task Force on Childhood Obesity addresses the "built environment"

According to the report, "Parents across America are deeply concerned about their children’s health and the epidemic of childhood obesity. One out of every three children is now overweight or obese, a condition that places them at greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and cancer over the course of their lives."

photo of kids on the trail

The goal is "Getting children more physically active"

What are the causes of the obesity epidemic? The report states: "At the same time, adults and children alike are getting less physical activity. Some schools have cut back on activities like physical education and recess, in part due to budget pressures at the state and local level. And children are increasingly driven to school by car or bus, rather than walking or biking.50 In part, these shifts in transportation reflect changes in community design. Physical activity is higher in more “connected” communities that provide safe and reliable access to public transportation, as well as other forms of active transport like biking and walking. "

What are the solutions? For advocates of trails and better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, the "active living" recommendations are key: "Getting children more physically active, through quality physical education, recess, and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities."

Among the recommendations, two are of most interest to trail and greenway supporters:

The “Built Environment”

From Chapter V. "Increasing Physical Activity of White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity

How communities are designed and function can promote— or inhibit— physical activity for children and adults. The built environment consists of all man-made structures, including transportation infrastructure, schools, office buildings, housing, and parks. Children’s ability to be physically active in their community depends on whether the community is safe and walkable, with good sidewalks and reasonable distances between destinations.

Research is still emerging on the exact interaction of the built environment and the impact on childhood obesity. Yet, a series of research studies suggests that attributes of our current built environment, such as low density development and sprawl, have had a negative impact on health outcomes, contributing to obesity and related health problems. Several of these studies have found that areas with greater sprawl tend to have higher rates of adult obesity. The combination of greater distances between destinations as development sprawls outward from city centers and the lack of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure contributes to eliminating walking and biking as options and to increased driving. One-fifth of all automobile trips in urban areas are one mile or less, and over two-fifths of these trips are under three miles, distances easily walked or biked if the proper infrastructure were available. Low-income communities in particular often have a higher number of busy through streets, poor cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and few high-quality parks and playgrounds— all elements which seem to deter physical activity.

On the other hand, communities that emphasize pedestrian-friendly design have the potential to bring about better health outcomes. Such designs help decrease automobile travel, increase opportunities for physical activity, enhance public safety, and improve air quality, while simultaneously preserving agricultural and other environmentally fragile areas. Research suggests that doubling residential density across a metropolitan area might lower household vehicle miles traveled by about 5 to 12%, and perhaps by as much as 25%, if coupled with other measures.

Creating new walkable, bikable communities can be feasible, but retrofitting the vast majority of existing American communities poses a separate challenge. This includes revitalizing older, traditional neighborhoods, often found in center cities or towns, to make them more viable, active communities. It also includes retrofitting newer sprawling communities to diversify their transportation options, creating a more walkable street grid.

Before undertaking any major new development or planning initiatives, communities may consider completing an assessment of the potential health impacts of the development. For example, Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) describe a combination of procedures, methods, and tools used to judge a policy or project’s potential public health effects and the distribution of those effects within the population. HIAs can be used to focus decision-makers’ attention on the health consequences of the projects and policies they are considering, particularly how land use decisions may impede or improve physical activity.

The existence of safe, convenient, and accessible facilities for walking and biking are likely to increase physical activity and make parents feel more secure about their children’s safety. However, they do not by themselves ensure more active lifestyles for residents of such communities. “Social environments” also play a role, including how community members feel about their neighborhood, how secure they feel, and how interested they are in participating in community-based physical activity. Evidence suggests that the combined effect of the built and social environment has an impact on rates of childhood obesity and overweight.

A recent study found that:

In particular, violence shapes our everyday decisions about where to live, work, go to school, shop for groceries, play, and whether go for a walk in the neighborhood or to a local park. In one study, people who classified their neighborhood as “not at all safe” were three times more likely to be physically inactive during leisure time than those who considered their neighborhood to be “extremely safe.” Another study also found that walking habits vary according to an individual’s perception of safety and physical surroundings. For example, fear may lead someone to shop at a nearby convenience store, which may only contain unhealthy food, instead of walking further to a farmers market, or a grocery store that has healthy produce options. Effective public safety measures, such as community based anti-crime and anti-gang initiatives, can reduce fear of crime and violence. Where possible, such efforts should be targeted on specific “hot spots” for crime and violence that impede access to parks, playgrounds, and other recreational facilities, as well as routes to healthy eating options.

“Active Transport”: Safe Routes to School and Beyond

Active transport refers to approaches that encourage individuals to actively travel between their destinations throughout the day, such as by biking or walking. Children who walk or bike to school report being more physically active, including engaging in more moderate to vigorous physical activity, than those who travel by car, bus, or train.

Programs like Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS), funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), have proven an effective way to get students safely walking and biking to school. Serving students in grades K-8, the SRTS program supports capital investments, such as building sidewalks, crosswalks, creating better community designs, and providing other supports for active transport. Nearly 6,500 schools are participating in the federal SRTS program, which has provided $612 million for this purpose since 2005. SRTS helped and continues to help increase the number of students walking to school and decrease those being driven to school. A study of SRTS sites in California showed a 38% increase in students walking to school.

Even without dedicated funding, some communities have found creative ways to make safe passages for young people between homes and neighborhoods, schools, and after school activities. For elementary students, the “walking school bus” has been a successful model, in which adults walk to school with a group of students. For older students, creative partnerships with police departments have helped students travel between school and afterschool activities safely in some communities.

Still, in 2009, only 13% of students rode a bike or walked to school, down from 44% in 1969. Similarly, the percentage of students riding a school bus has also declined and more students report coming to school by personal vehicle than other methods. Parents cite many barriers to “active transport,” commonly referencing distance to school, traffic-related danger, and weather. In the same survey, 12% of parents cited fear of crime as a barrier. Six percent of parents also cited school policies that prohibit walking and biking to school as the reason their children did not walk or bike to school. Bike and pedestrian safety is a real concern as well. In 2007, 14,000 children were injured and 300 killed by cars. There is a “safety in numbers” trend, in which roadways generally become safer for everyone when more people are out walking and biking.


Recommendation 5.8: Reauthorize a Surface Transportation Act that enhances livability and physical activity. A complete network of safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities would allow children to take more trips through active transportation and get more physical activity. New Federal aid construction projects should accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians by incorporating “Complete Streets” principles. As improvement projects for existing facilities are undertaken, transportation infrastructure should be retrofitted, where feasible, to support and encourage bicycle and pedestrian use. State and local money can also be leveraged to support safe facilities for children to walk or bike to places like parks, playgrounds, transit, and community centers. The reauthorization could adopt Complete Streets principles that would include routine accommodation of walkers and bicyclists for new construction, to influence retrofitting of existing communities, and to support public transportation. In addition, it could enhance authority for recreational areas on public lands.

Recommendation 5.9: The Environmental Protection Agency should assist school districts that may be interested in siting guidelines for new schools that consider the promotion of physical activity, including whether students will be able to walk or bike to school.

Recommendation 5.10: Communities should be encouraged to consider the impacts of built environment policies and regulations on human health. Local communities should consider integrating Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) into local decision-making processes, and the Federal government should continue to support the development of an HIA approach, tools, and supporting resources that promote best practices.

Recommendation 5.11: The Federal Safe Routes to School Program (SRTS) should be continued and enhanced to accommodate the growing interest in implementing Safe Routes to Schools plans in communities. This can be facilitated by:

Recommendation 5.12: “Active transport” should be encouraged between homes, schools, and community destinations for afterschool activities, including to and from parks, libraries, transit, bus stops, and recreation centers.

Benchmarks of Success

Increase by 50% by 2015 the percentage of children ages 5-18 taking safe walking and biking trips to and from school. An increase of 50% would mean that 19.5% of school trips would be by biking or walking. This data is available from the National Household Travel Survey, which is conducted every five to seven years, so there may be a delay in this data becoming available.

D. Community Recreation Venues

Parks and Playgrounds

Parks and playgrounds in a community can provide opportunities to run and play and may increase unstructured physical activity. If children can easily access safe parks and playgrounds in good repair, they are more likely to engage in recreational physical activity there.

National, state, and local parks are an ideal environment to be physically active, and increased access to parks is proven to promote physical activity among children and adolescents. In addition to encouraging physical activity, parks and other natural landscapes can provide recreational experiences, opportunities to learn and grow, and places of quiet refuge. The Federal government provides support for state and local conservation and recreation initiatives through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) State Assistance Program. The goal of this program is to increase access to a park, a river, or an area of open space close to home. As part of this initiative, funds can be used to enhance and support the further development of parks and playgrounds in communities. Other Federal programs provide funding to States and local entities for park and open space conservation and recreation trails and shared use paths, including HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program and DOT’s Transportation Enhancement program.

Private, nonprofit organizations and corporations have also supported park and playground development in communities. By engaging in park clean-ups and playground development, businesses can take part in initiatives that contribute to community cohesion and improve access to playgrounds and parks.

Outdoor and Indoor Venues

Outdoor recreation and access to nature play a vital role in the physical, psychological, spiritual well-being, health, and development of people of all ages. The current poor health of many American children today, including increasing levels of obesity-related illnesses, attention deficit- hyperactivity, vitamin D deficiency, and myopia are being attributed, in part, to a generational decline in the level of outdoor recreation in natural environments.

Children’s level of physical activity has been shown to increase when they participate in environmental education programs that promote outdoor activity. Children of all ages are healthier, happier, and have better social skills if they have frequent opportunities for free and unstructured play outdoors. For these reasons, children need to be encouraged to connect with the outdoors—places that can promote both physical and emotional health.

Communities still need to ensure adequate and accessible indoor facilities for physical activity. For students who are unable to play outside because of allergies or asthma, particularly during high-pollution days or inclement weather, communities should make sure indoor recreational facilities are available to children. Currently, 65% of schools allow for community use of physical activity or athletic facilities, a strategy that can increase opportunities for indoor activity.

Communities also must ensure that children actually are aware of the opportunities available to them. The Task Force for Community Preventive Services found that informational outreach is essential to maximizing the results of improvements in access to physical activity. In some communities, outreach was unnecessary, but in others, outreach and communications was needed.


Recommendation 5.13: Increase the number of safe and accessible parks and playgrounds, particularly in underserved and low-income communities. This can be accomplished in part by:

Recommendation 5.14: The Federal government should continue to support investments in a wide range of outdoor recreation venues, such as National Parks, Forests, Refuges and other public lands, and expand opportunities for children to enjoy these venues. The U.S. Department of Interior and the National Forest Service maintain hundreds of millions of acres of public land, as well as rivers, parks, and other areas.

Recommendation 5.15: Local governments should be encouraged to enter into joint use agreements to increase children’s access to community sites for indoor and outdoor recreation.

Recommendation 5.16: The business sector should be encouraged to consider which resources and physical assets like fields and gyms can be used to increase students’ access to outdoor and indoor recreational venues. Corporations, for example, may have large grounds that they can make available for children in the community to play soccer or engage in other outdoor activities.

Recommendation 5.17: Entertainment and technology companies should continue to develop new approaches for using technology to engage children in physical activity.

Benchmarks of Success

Increase access to, use of, and the number of safe and accessible parks and playgrounds, particularly in underserved and low-income communities. Partial data sources exist in the private sector to measure this, but work will need to be done to develop those sources and measure progress.

Key Questions for Future Research


arrow Download the full report on Childhood Obesity (pdf 3.2 mb)

arrow Read First Lady Michelle Obama launches Let’s Move! campaign

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