J Epidemiol Community Health 55:139-146 doi:10.1136/jech.55.2.139
  • Public health policy and practice

Self reported physical activity, public health, and perceived environment: results from a comparative European study


STUDY OBJECTIVE The focus of physical activity promotion is moving from methods for increasing health enhancing physical activity on the individual level to higher level strategies including environmental and policy approaches. Scientific inquiry, traditionally related to individual-based strategies, requires adaptation and refinement when environmental and policy changes become more relevant. The objective of this study is to investigate the significance for behaviour and health of community-based environments that encourage physical activity.

DESIGN AND SETTING The article presents data and results from a cross sectional comparative survey of the general population in six European countries (Belgium, Finland, Germany (East and West), Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland). Specifically, the relation between perceived community-based opportunities for physical activity, self reported physical activity, and self rated health status is investigated.

PARTICIPANTS Representative samples of general populations (adults 18 years or older). Overall response rate: 53.5%. Sample sizes realised: Belgium: n = 389; Finland: n = 400; Germany (East): n = 913; Germany (West): n = 489; Netherlands: n = 366; Spain: n = 380; Switzerland: n =406.

MAIN RESULTS Analyses show that best opportunities are reported by people who are lightly to moderately physically active. People's self rated health is moderately, but significantly associated with both perceived opportunities, and physical activity itself. These predictors interact in that especially for women, the health impact of physical activity is more pronounced in case of good opportunities.

CONCLUSIONS The paper shows the potential of opportunities within residential and community environments with regard to physical activity, both for behaviour and health. Opportunities may enable the population, especially women, to develop an active lifestyle, and thus improve their health. Future studies with objective indicators for physical activity related environments should test the findings that are based on perceptions.


  • Funding: this research was conducted within the MAREPS project (Methodology for the Analysis of the Rationality and Effectiveness of Prevention and Health Promotion Strategies), a Concerted Action funded within the BIOMED 2-program by the European Union (European Commission, Brussels, Belgium; Contract no BMH4-CT96-0304; Contractor: Technical University of Chemnitz; Associated Contractors: Limburg University Centre (Diepenbeek, Belgium); University of Jyväskylä (Jyväskylä, Finland); Netherlands Institute of Primary Health Care (Utrecht, the Netherlands); University of Valencia (Valencia, Spain), subcontractor: University of Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain); University of Bern (Bern, Switzerland)). Field work was supported by grants from: Ministry of the Flemish Community, Cabinet of the Flemish Minister of Finance, Budget and Health Policy (Brussels, Belgium); Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (both Helsinki, Finland); Saxon State Ministry of Social Affairs, Health and Family Affairs (Dresden, Germany); Health Research and Development Council (‘s-Gravenhage, the Netherlands); Department of Home Affairs, Federal Office for Public Health and Federal Office for Education and Science (Bern, Switzerland).

  • Conflicts of interest: none.