In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Physical Activity Promotion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Measurement and Methodology

Public Health Physical Activity Promotion
Alfred Rütten, Karim Abu-Omar, Peter Gelius
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0068


Public health scientists are increasingly adopting physical activity as a research topic. This trend is borne out in the literature by the number of articles on the topic published in scientific journals. While one segment of this literature contributes to the mounting evidence on the health benefits of physical activity, another segment focuses on physical activity promotion. The emergence of physical activity research as a relevant topic in the public health literature can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the introduction of the health-enhancing physical activity (HEPA) concept has played a large role. HEPA expanded the scope of research beyond sport and exercise to include a number of broader domains, such as leisure-time, transportation, occupational work, and household activities. The change of physical activity recommendations in the 1990s, emphasizing an “active lifestyle” and suggesting people should accumulate moderate doses of physical activity in multiple domains, has made HEPA the dominant concept for physical activity promotion efforts. At the same time, the shift toward the HEPA concept presented new challenges for physical activity surveillance. In response, several international consortia developed, which tested and applied improved physical activity questionnaires (IPAQ). Second the increasing importance of public health issues, like the obesity epidemic and increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases, led to intensified research on correlates and determinants of physical activity. An understanding of these issues is a key prerequisite for designing appropriate interventions. While earlier studies and reviews primarily focused on individual determinants such as age and gender, environmental and policy determinants have become an emerging topic in the literature since the early 2000s. At the same time, ecological models have underlined the complexity and interdependency of the various factors that are influencing physical activity behaviors of the population. Third, despite increasing public health efforts to address the problem of insufficient levels of physical activity, success has been inadequate. About half of the adults in industrialized nations remain sedentary. This sobering experience, together with the general evidence debate in public health, has further stimulated research on the most effective and efficient interventions. Today, there exists a vast literature on the topic, including systematic reviews on the evidence base of both individual-based and population-based interventions. Although research activity and publications have increased in many areas in the last decades, important research deficits still exist with regard to physical activity policy. Both national and international public health policies that include physical activity are developing rapidly, and different international organizations have issued policy recommendations, but policy monitoring is still in its infancy. Moreover, while many have argued for a strong policy approach, few have carried out the research necessary to understand how physical activity policy is made or how to more effectively develop policies from a policy science perspective.

General Overviews

There are some older yet seminal works that may serve well as a starting point for studying the subject of physical activity promotion. Caspersen, et al. 1985 laid the ground for systematic research employing the concept of “physical activity” by providing a widely accepted definition of the term and distinguishing it from the related concepts of “exercise” and “physical fitness.” Bouchard, et al. 1994 summarized the consensus reached by experts from all over the world in the early 1990s on central issues such as theory, measurement, and determinants of physical activity, as well as its relation to physiology and various diseases. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (US Department of Health and Human Services 1996) highlighted the need to promote physical activity in the entire population and laid the basis for the concept of “health-enhancing physical activity” (HEPA). Today, there are overviews on physical activity promotion for various audiences. There are a number of textbooks geared at the undergraduate level that usually feature a didactic structure, a large number of charts and graphs, study questions, and bibliographies. One example is Kohl and Murray 2012, which covers the fundamental concepts of physical activity and public health, the effects of physical activity on body functions and medical conditions, and an overview of the most important intervention types. An example of a European textbook is Hardman and Stensel 2009, which follows a similar approach but puts more emphasis on the scientific evidence concerning physical activity while providing fewer details on interventions. Other overviews are aimed at researchers and professional audiences and are more scientific in style. For example, Sallis and Owen 1998 provides a literature review of various aspects of physical activity and health from a behavioral and physiological point of view. The edited volume Ainsworth and Macera 2012 is conceptualized as a reference work for public health practitioners. Oja and Borms 2004 presents a review conducted by leading scientists on the current state of research from the perspective of the HEPA paradigm.

  • Ainsworth, Barbara E., and Caroline A. Macera, eds. 2012. Physical activity and public health practice. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    DOI: 10.1201/b11718

    This volume summarizes current research on physical activity and public health. It covers the prevention and treatment of various medical conditions, settings and target groups, and measurement and policy development. Each section provides study questions, but the style is closer to a research publication than to a textbook.

  • Bouchard, Claude, Roy J. Shephard, and Thomas Stephens, eds. 1994. Physical activity, fitness, and health. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    This bulky volume is the outcome of an international consensus conference held in Toronto in 1992. It contains a consensus statement identifying 355 areas for future research, as well as sections on various topics, including the effects of physical activity on body functions, diseases, and different age groups.

  • Caspersen, Carl J., Kenneth E. Powell, and Gregory M. Christenson. 1985. Physical activity, exercise and physical fitness: Definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Reports 100.2: 126–131.

    This article provides a basic definition of physical activity and distinguishes it from the concepts of “exercise” and “physical fitness.” It suggests ways of structuring physical activity, such as using different portions of daily life or intensity levels. It lists procedures to measure physical fitness and provides a short glossary of relevant terms.

  • Hardman, Adrianne E., and David J. Stensel. 2009. Physical activity and health: The evidence explained. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    This textbook is built around issues concerning the evidence on physical activity and health. It provides a chapter on how to collect and interpret data, and it summarizes the current state of research on the influence of physical activity on major chronic diseases. The section on physical activity interventions and recommendations is rather short.

  • Kohl, Harold W., III, and Tinker D. Murray. 2012. Foundations of physical activity and public health. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    This textbook provides students with a systematic introduction to physical activity and public health. The first part deals with the basics of public health, kinesiology, and physical activity measurement. The remainder of the book covers the effects of physical activity on different medical conditions and the most common approaches to the promotion of physical activity.

  • Oja, Pekka, and Jan Borms, eds. 2004. Health enhancing physical activity. Perspectives: The Multidisciplinary Series of Physical Education and Sport Science 6. Oxford, UK: Meyer & Meyer Sport.

    Based on the HEPA concept, this edited volume presents a global review of research on physical activity and health. It discusses both the positive and negative health effects of physical activity. Other sections cover recommendations, prevalence, measurement issues, interventions, and the connection of physical activity and lifestyle.

  • Sallis, James F., and Neville Owen. 1998. Physical activity and behavioral medicine. London: SAGE.

    This book gives an overview of research on health-related physical activity, with a focus on behavioral aspects and physiology. It summarizes and reviews the literature on the health benefits of physical activity, recommendations and measurement issues, and determinants and interventions, with a certain focus on individual-based interventions.

  • US Department of Health and Human Services. 1996. Physical activity and health: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services.

    This report provides an overview of research results and draws conclusions for physical activity promotion efforts in the United States. It includes a historical overview as well as a chapter on behavioral research related to physical activity. Other sections address physiological issues, prevalence, and the effects of activity on different diseases.

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