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Q&A with James Sallis

Location, location, location

Where we live has an impact on our level of physical activity

Professor James Sallis, a distinguished professor in Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is a leading expert in the field of policy and environmental influences on physical activity, nutrition and obesity. His groundbreaking work and commitment to promoting active health through practical interventions and advocacy earned him the 2012 Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health. In advance of his visit to McGill to receive his award, we spoke with Dr. Sallis about his research and its impact.

(McGill) How did your background as a trained psychologist lead you to your current research?

(James Sallis) During the early years of my research, I was interested in understanding the role peoples’ motivations and other psychological factors play in an individual’s ability to adopt and maintain a physical activity regimen. These studies led me to conclude that a complex set of psychological and environmental factors are at play and that if we are to be successful in changing behaviour over the long term, we must modify how we plan and build our neighbourhoods. In recent years, I have focused my energies on studying how the design of our communities, transportation systems and parks can help people re-integrate fitness into their daily lives, and I have worked to gain buy-in for change from government agencies and industries. My goal is not to use my research to point the finger, but to point the direction to solutions.

(M) Why has our environment only recently been recognized as a contributing factor to physical inactivity?

(JS) As members of the human species, we are living the dream of our ancestors: to eliminate backbreaking work. The inventions we have made and the industries we have created have all been aimed at making our lives easier. Consider all the labour-saving devices we have in our homes and the high-tech toys that provide us with entertainment. And the neighbourhoods we have built have been designed around the automobile, rather than around walking and other forms of physical activity. We have now reached a point where what we have created is literally killing us! Chronic disease related to physical inactivity is now a global pandemic that is responsible for about 5 million deaths every year. Since we are not going to reverse this trend by eliminating computers and washing machines, or by making other changes at our homes and workplaces, we must rethink our transportation and recreation infrastructures and make them more conducive to physical ativity.

(M) Are there communities that are successfully working to move in this direction?

(JS) Yes there are. Northern European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland have been pioneers in developing alternatives to an automobile-centric urban infrastructure. In fact, there are now so many bicyclists that some cities are having problems with bike path congestion. Here in North America, New York City has made impressive headway. Its mayor convenes an annual summit, where various departments (Health, Parks, etc.) outline initiatives that have included the creation of more parks and the introduction of protected bike paths. Even in car-dominated Los Angeles, neighbouring Long Beach has been named the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.

(M) What can the average person do to help make the community more conducive to physical activity?

(JS) There are many things you can do. If your neighbourhood doesn’t have sidewalks or lacks park facilities, I encourage you to lobby your local government. And if you are a parent, you can find out what kind of physical education and activities your children are involved in at school. If the school hasn’t already done so, suggest that it implement the SPARK (Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids) program, which conducts a popular series of workshops for teachers and physical activity experts. There is no one solution to the problem of inactivity, but when many people make themselves heard, change does come.

(M) What does it mean to have been named the winner of the Bloomberg Manulife Prize?

(JS) For someone involved in research related to physical activity, I consider this award to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.