James F. Sallis, PhD is newly appointed Distinguished Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California, San Diego. He also is Director of Active Living Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His primary research interests are promoting physical activity and understanding policy and environmental influences on physical activity, nutrition, and obesity. He is the author of over 500 scientific publications, on the editorial boards of several journals, and one of the world's most cited authors in the social sciences. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, and Time Magazine identified him as an "obesity warrior".
My training is in psychology, with a post-doctoral fellowship in epidemiology and prevention. My career-long dedication to research on health promotion through physical activity has evolved into a sense of mission. The voluminous research documenting the incredible range of health effects of physical activity has done little to galvanize health care, public health, or political leaders into action. This situation has moved me to focus more on using research to identify powerful and long-lasting solutions, learning how to apply the knowledge we have, and getting involved in advocacy to promote use of evidence-based interventions.
Building evidence on built environments and physical activity. Since 2000 my research focus has been on improving understanding of how built environments and policies are related to physical activity. My intention is for this research to provide an evidence base for creating communities that facilitate physical activity for all people. In my view, the root causes of low activity levels are tied to technological advances that reduced or eliminated the need for physical activity in work (computers), transportation (cars), household (appliances), and leisure (TV, internet, video games) domains of life.
With support from several NIH grants, our interdisciplinary team is examining built environment factors in physical activity because environmental changes can have population-wide and long-term effects, and this topic was poorly studied when we began. Building on our initial study of adults, in the past few years we have applied similar methods to studying children, adolescents, and older adults. Recent papers documented strong associations of walkability with physical activity, obesity, and sedentary behaviors; income-based disparities in built environment attributes; associations of obesogenic neighborhoods with child and parent obesity; making bicycling safer from cars could encourage low-income people to cycle more.
An essential component of this research program has been the development of measures. The self-reported Neighborhood Environment Walkability Scale (NEWS) and GIS-based walkability index have been used by many groups worldwide. We developed a suite of survey measures of home, school, and neighborhood environmental factors tailored to children and adolescents, and these also are being widely adopted. Recent contributions to improving accelerometer-based assessment of physical activity include co-authoring an NIH-sponsored paper on the future of technology-based measures and a review of accelerometer use and reporting in the youth literature.
Our newest NIH grant is attempting to figure out the puzzle of how crime and fear may be related to physical activity. We expect people may react differently to crime and fear based on their history of victimization, options for coping behaviors like being active with others, and necessity for being active outdoors, such as walking for transportation. We will be developing new measures, then exploring the connections between crime, fear, and physical activity among adolescents, adults, and older adults.
IPEN: International Physical activity and Environment Network. When we started our built environment studies it occurred to me that if we made our methods freely available to others, we could conduct international comparisons and pooled analyses. We created IPEN to stimulate international research using comparable methods so data could be pooled. Over 300 researchers from 50 countries are part of the network. IPEN assisted investigators in many countries to obtain internal funding, and a National Cancer Institute grant is supporting coordinated analyses and paper writing with 12 countries represented. An IPEN Adolescent grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is supporting coordinated studies in at least 10 countries.
ALR: Active Living Research. Though not a research project, ALR is an important part of my professional life. I was asked to become Director of ALR for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2001. At that time, there were very few studies the relation of environments and policies to physical activity. Our initial priorities were to fund and manage studies to build the evidence and nurture a highly interdisciplinary field of researchers to conduct studies of community design, transportation systems, parks and recreation facilities, and school environments and policies. After very positive evaluations of the initial phase, ALR was renewed in 2007 to manage an additional research fund to build the evidence base focused on solutions for childhood obesity and related disparities, then use the evidence to inform policy change. In a second evaluation in 2011, ALR received credit for nurturing a new field of research that integrates the concepts and methods of many diverse disciplines. The growth of this field from 50 articles per year in 2000 to about 400 in 2012 has been gratifying.