Texas A&M University professor Chanam Lee wants to get couch potatoes up and walking, but instead of trying to sell sedentary individuals on the benefits of exercise, she’s focusing on how to change the environment to encourage healthful activity.
“My research indicates that supportive built environments promote walking and physical activity,” says Lee, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning in the College of Architecture. “Such supportive infrastructure features include compact and mixed land uses near homes, proximity to daily routine travel destinations, connected sidewalks, visual aesthetic quality and attention to personal safety, both in terms of traffic safety and protection from crime.”
Lee has focused her attention on studying the walkability and bikeability of environments in Korea, Washington State and Texas locations such as Austin and College Station and even in the colonias along the Texas-Mexico border. Other research has focused on health and exercise needs of high risk groups such as older adults, lower-income populations and individuals with chronic health conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
Walking tied to objective measures and
subjective perceptions of environment
“Research about environmental influences on walking and physical activity has found that these activities depend on both the actual and perceived environmental conditions of how accessible recreational facilities and local destinations are by walking,” Lee notes. “Walking and biking are popular physical activities and occur primarily in streets and free public facilities close to individuals’ homes, suggesting that building walkable and bikable communities could address public health as well as transportation concerns.
“My research has uncovered support for the idea that the probability of an individual’s walking to a given destination depends on environmental design and on that individual’s health risks and socioeconomic status. For example, lower-income populations are more likely to walk to their utilitarian destinations, since they live in higher-density neighborhoods where such destinations are closer and often have limited access to cars. However, such populations usually do not have good access to high-quality recreational facilities in their neighborhoods.”
Lee’s research focuses on both individual attitudes toward walking and biking and perceptions about the friendliness of the environment toward both. Additionally, she has collaborated on the development of statistical measures to rank the walkability and bikeability of the environment being analyzed.
Studying shopping centers and border settlements
“One of my current research interests involves the construction of shopping centers and the opportunities and obstacles they present pedestrians and bike riders,” Lee says. “For example, we found that having a place to walk to encourages people to walk. Retail stores and service facilities, for example, grocery stores, drug stores, coffee shops, banks and post offices, were popular walking destinations. Individuals sometimes even choose to walk to these destinations, rather than using other available transportation choices.
“I’m looking at how neighborhood shopping centers are constructed – for example, do the large parking lots that typically surround them offer additional barriers to walking, as pedestrians are forced to dodge cars even after reaching the store. Also, I believe that translating research into practice is important in making actual differences for people. My professional interests are to plan and design healthy communities that foster walking and physical activities by incorporating evidence-based strategies that include vibrant retail centers, compact and mixed land uses, extensive walking and biking trails, visually attractive design features and ecologically sensitive development approaches..”
Another of Lee’s current collaborations focuses on the colonias, small border communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Her colleagues on this project are Cecilia Giusti of the landscape architecture and urban planning department and Dominique Lord of the department of civil engineering.
“Our project looks at effect of the transportation infrastructure and the overall built environment to help us identity factors contributing to health and quality of life for the economically challenged Hispanic populations who live in the colonias,” she explains. “We are using both objective and subjective measurements, including surveys, travel diaries, GPS-equipped pedometers and GIS techniques, to capture data on these individuals’ physical activity, use of transportation and the environment in which they live.”
As excited and busy as Lee is with her own research, she overshadows discussion of her studies with extolling the accomplishments of her graduate students. Two of her doctoral students – Xuemei Zhu, architecture, and K. Meghan Weiters, landscape architecture and urban planning – have won prestigious doctoral study grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Helping children get to school safely
Zhu's research focuses on the walkability and safety of the routes children take to school.
"Walking to and from school can increase children's physical activity, thus helping to reduce childhood obesity," she explains. "And some children have to walk to school because they have no other way of getting there. The built environment, however, often imposes barriers to such walking trips, including poor or missing sidewalks, hard-to-cross streets and unappealing surroundings."
Zhu's dissertation developed a walkability and safety index to measure the environmental support for children’s walking to school, at both neighborhood and street levels, in the city of Austin. In addition, she tested ethnic disparities in walking environments across schools with different ethnic compositions and socioeconomic status.
"I measured the neighborhood-level walkability and safety for 73 public elementary schools using Geographic Information Systems, and then conducted field audits to assess street-level walkability,” she explains. “For schools with more Hispanic children and lower socioeconomic status, I found the neighborhood-level walkability was actually higher, featuring shorter distance to school, and more sidewalks. However, the street-level walkability, such as convenience of walking, aesthetics, amenities, maintenance, and perceived safety of street segments, are much lower in poor areas."
"What’s more important,” she continued, “I found that the crash rate and crime rate were dramatically higher around schools with lower socioeconomic status and more Hispanic children.”
The next phase of her dissertation will conduct surveys with parents, and test the impact of individual, social, and built environmental factors on and parents' decisions about how their children get to school.
Recently, Zhu has presented her data to the Austin "Safe Routes to School" initiative, which is preparing an application for funding from the 2005 federal transportation bill SAFETEA-LU. This bill has made available $612 million in federal funds for the five-year period (2005-2009) of the national Safe Routes to School program.
"I believe that studies such as mine can help guide policy making, directing government investment to those areas where students are both close enough to walk to school and required by economic necessity to do so," she adds. "I hope that our work can help decision makers to address and remedy instances where the built environment reflects social inequities affecting our most vulnerable populations, our children."
Encouraging office workers to get out and walk
“My dissertation involves a study of the walking habits of office workers at Texas A&M and the University of Texas,” Weiters says. “I hope to use my results to design a successful intervention program that can be used to encourage other similar populations to get out and walk.”
Weiters notes that walking has been shown to be as effective as more vigorous exercise in reducing coronary heart disease risks and, when combined with healthy eating habits, to aid in weight loss. But, she adds, office workers typically have few opportunities to get physically active during the eight or more hours spent sitting at computers or tending the telephone. Her study will survey a random sample of such workers from the two university populations, combining completion of an initial online questionnaire about exercise habits with keeping a two-day travel diary to record the individuals’ daily routines.
“I’ll use the information collected to design personalized interventions, including emails with exercise tips, for the participants, showing them how to increase the amount of walking they do, thus promoting healthier behaviors,” she explains. “Ultimately, increasing walking by sedentary workers will help to increase their health, reduce insurance costs and decrease vehicle emissions by decreasing numbers of car trips, thus benefiting our overall transportation system.”
Contributions to exercise-built environment research
“The study of how exercise can be promoted through better environmental design and by discovering more effective motivational approaches is crucial to improving the health of our country and its transportation systems,” Lee notes. “Organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation play a key role in continuation of those research efforts.
“I’m dedicated to expanding my research on these matters, and I’m certainly very proud of my graduate students who have made significant contributions toward advancing knowledge in this field.”