Supportive Environments for Physical Activity: How the Built Environment Affects Our Health

The built environment is part of our physical surroundings and includes the buildings, parks, schools, road systems, and other infrastructure that we encounter in our daily lives.Footnote 1

Certain community designs have strong potential to contribute to increased physical activity. Researchers have found convincing evidence that people who live in communities characterized by mixed land use (e.g., with stores in walking distance of homes); well-connected street networks; and high residential density are more active, especially for transportation, than those who live in communities designed for automobile dependence. Other researchers have concluded that proximity to recreational facilities, along with pleasing aesthetics, is associated with more recreational physical activity.Footnote 2

Walkable communities and the built environment have been highlighted in both the Pan-Canadian Healthy Living Strategy (PDF Document - 232 KB - 56 pages) and the Report on The State of Public Health in Canada 2008: Addressing Health Inequalities as impacting health.

Supportive environments, those that make social and physical environments where children live, learn and play more supportive of physical activity and healthy eating, are identified as a priority policy area under the initiative Curbing Childhood Obesity : A Federal-Provincial-Territorial Framework for Action to Promote Healthy Weights.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has been involved in promoting healthy built environments through our work with partners. Examples include:

  • Development of the report, Bringing Health to the Planning Table: A Profile of Promising Practices in Canada and Abroad, which was produced by the Healthy Living Issue Group of the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network
  • Age-Friendly Communities – a collaborative initiative to ensure policies, services, and structures related to the physical and social environment are designed to support and enable older people to “age actively” – that is, to live in security, enjoy good health and continue to participate fully in society. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada is one of many organizations committed to promoting healthy built environments. While not an exhaustive list, a number of other organizations addressing this issue include:



Non-governmental Organizations


Fast Facts about Canada's Neighbourhoods and Physical Activity

In 2011, the Public Health Agency of Canada sponsored a module on neighbourhood environments as part of Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey. This module provides new information on the number of Canadians who live in neighbourhoods that promote leisure-time physical activity and active transportation (walking or biking to work or school).

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