Active Living

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What is Active Living?

Active living incorporates physical activity on a daily basis to promote physical and mental well-being.[1] Many adults do not meet the Surgeon General’s recommendations for regular physical activity, mainly because driving replaces walking and biking as the primary mode of transportation.[2] Some of this change is due to individual decisions. Another explanation is the built environment; many communities lack sidewalks and bike lanes and other amenities that would otherwise promote active living.[3] The settings where people spend their time – work, home, and school, for example – influence daily behaviors.[4]

Active living incorporates physical activity into daily routines, such as:[5]

  • Playing in the park
  • Taking the stairs
  • Using recreation facilities
  • Walking or bicycling for exercise, pleasure, or transportation
  • Working in the yard

Active design contributes to public health initiatives and also has positive environmental effects. Strategies that increase the physical activity – such as promoting walking over driving, stairs over elevator usage and recreation over stationary activities such as video games – all also tend to lower energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[6] Active living design provides access by people of all ages and varying mobility.

Figure 1 – Children walking to school (Source: Voorhees Transportation Center)

Figure 1 – Children walking to school (Source: Voorhees Transportation Center)

How to Implement Active Living

Design strategies that contribute to active living should be considered early in project development and an integrated design process will optimize opportunities and help minimize costs.  Equitable planning is key as “healthy” communities are often limited to those who can afford them. Communities of color and immigrant populations are increasingly occupying suburbs that often have limited safe and accessible walking and biking options.[7] Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States face health disparities including higher rates of chronic disease.[8]  The NJ Department of Health’s State Health Assessment Data (NJSHAD) provides searchable data about the health of the population in NJ that can help inform decision-making. Key recommended measures for implementing active living in developing a site include:[9]

  • Develop mixed land use in neighborhoods and maintain existing mixed conditions.
  • Incorporate pedestrian-friendly design including traffic calming features, landscaping, lighting, benches, and water fountains.
  • Create continuous bike networks and incorporate bicycle infrastructure including indoor and outdoor bike parking accommodations.
  • Ensure a pleasant, safe and secure outdoor environment for pedestrians and cyclists by including, pedestrian-scale lighting, entrances that are easy to see and access from cross streets, ADA accessible sidewalks and ramps, and ground floor windows that provide “eyes on the street.”
  • Provide easy access to open spaces, parks, plazas, public buildings, recreational facilities, schools, and trails.
  • Design public spaces to accommodate a wide range of public uses.
  • Improve access to public transit and multi-modal transit hubs.
  • Improve the access and availability of healthy food by providing easy access to local grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
  • De-emphasize motor vehicle parking, avoid expansive parking lots, and locate necessary parking in areas away from primary pedestrian traffic.

There are also steps that can be taken to incorporate active living into building design. Steps that architects can take to promote physical activity within their structures incorporate some of the following:[10]

  • Encouraging stair use by placing the main stairway in a convenient location for everyday use as well as signage encouraging the use of stairs over elevators. Stairs should also be designed to be visually pleasing and inviting with ample daylight or electrical lighting.
  • Incorporating exercise facilities in easily visible locations as well as providing locker rooms, showers, drinking fountains, and bicycle storage.
  • Designing the building exterior and envelope to contribute to a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere and including a variety of entries and canopies.
  • Improving the access and availability of healthy food by providing on-site gardens on rooftops, in courtyards or on patio spaces.


Get Healthy Camden

Get Healthy Camden is working to building a culture of health in the City of Camden. The organization implements programs related to healthy eating, healthy living, and active living. These programs grew from the blueprint developed by Get Healthy Camden to address community health with an action plan that includes adopting a “comprehensive citywide wellness policy that consists of policies and systems that create walking and biking paths, parks and open space, healthy and affordable food outlets, and that makes Camden an environment that supports daily physical activity and nutrition.”[11]


Active living can provide both short and long-term benefits to people of all ages and abilities. Short-term benefits include:[12]

  • increased ease performing daily activities such as climbing stairs
  • increased energy and the ability to cope with stress
  • improved sleep
  • decreased risk of depression
  • improvements in student performance, including grades and standardized test scores[13]

Potential long-term benefits include reduced risk for specific health problems such as:[14]

  • back pain
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity and obesity-related diseases
  • anxiety and depression
  • cancer [15]

Active living can also reduce reliance on automobiles and promote increased positive/personal interaction in the community.


The cost to implement active living strategies depends on a variety of factors. As with any community design process, some costs include collecting data from the neighborhood as well as the implementation costs of various programs such as walking clubs or bicycle recycle initiatives.[16] These costs are dependent on the existing design of a community as well as the population within it and their willingness to volunteer their time and resources to active living.

An integrated design process and considering active living design strategies from the start can minimize costs regardless of project scale. A study released in 2018 identified the total cost of chronic diseases related to individuals identified as obese or overweight was $1.72 trillion or 9.3% of the United States gross domestic product (GDP).[17] Active living can have long-term positive impacts on public health that reduce costs on a community scale.


Health is a key factor in community resilience, defined as the sustained ability of communities to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity.[18] Active living helps promote a healthier community of people who are better able to endure and recover from a disaster or emergency event. Accessible public spaces help develop community connections that are important sources of support during emergencies.

[1] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Active Living Resource Center.” (accessed September 18, 2018).

[2] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Active Living Resource Center.” (accessed September 18, 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] CDC. Adult Obesity – Causes & Consequences. (accessed January 6, 2019).

[5] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Active Living Resource Center.” (accessed September 18, 2018).

[6] New York City Department of Design and Construction. “Active Design Guidelines.” (accessed September 20, 2018).

[7]Aces Connection. Resilient Communities are Healthy Communities. (accessed January 6, 2019).

[8] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity. (accessed January 6, 2019).

[9] New York City Department of Design and Construction. “Active Design Guidelines.” (accessed September 20, 2018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] New Jersey Health Initiatives. 2016. Get Healthy Camden – A Partnership for Healthy Kids Program (accessed January 7, 2019).

[12] US Dept. of Health and Human Services. Importance of Physical Activity (accessed January 6. 2019).

[13] Leadership for Healthy Communities. (accessed January 5, 2019).

[14] Warburton, D.E., Whitney Nicol, C., Bredin, S.S. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence Can. Med. Assoc. J., Mar 2006; 174: 801 – 809

[15]  US Dept. of Health and Human Services. Active Living. (accessed January 5, 2019)

[16] Active Living By Design. “5P Strategies and Tactics.” (accessed March 18, 2011).

[17] Waters, Hugh and Marlon Graf. America’s Obesity Crisis: The Health and Economic Costs of Excess Weight. (accessed January 6, 2019).

[18] Public Health Emergency. Build and Sustain Healthy, Resilient Communities. (accessed January 6, 2019).