Do you live in an exercise desert? Do you live in an exercise desert? Verywell Health

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Important Takeaways

  • People who live in areas of exercise deserts are faced with challenges in their living spaces that make it hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • The neighborhoods with the lowest incomes are most likely to be viewed as exercise deserts.
  • Experts are pushing for a variety of ways to make it safer and more convenient to Americans of all capabilities to participate in physical activity within their neighborhoods.

About a quarter of Americans do not exercise enough fitness, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, certain people might not get enough exercise because of the area they reside in.

A few Americans reside in the “exercise desert” where they do not have access to a gym that is affordable or a safe and well-lit areas of green, bicycle paths or sidewalks that are well-maintained.

NiCole Keith, PhD FACSM is a professor of kinesiology of kinesiology at Indiana University, and her colleague invented”exercise desert,” a term coined by her colleague “exercise desert” 15 years ago. It was a term used to describe areas where fitness opportunities for people are limited by their physical surroundings.

“The possibilities for individuals to be physically active in the places they live, be active in their work, play, or study is dependent on the socioeconomic standing of the population,” Keith told Verywell.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes moderate aerobic activity each week.

Communities with damaged sidewalks or roads that have high speeds create barriers for residents to be physically active within their neighborhood.

For instance, a 2021 research study by the city of Pontiac, Michigan found that more than 60 percent on the sidewalks in Pontiac had been damaged and more than 80% of the sidewalks didn’t have enough street lighting or shade. The report also discovered that these issues were frequent in poor neighborhoods.

Roads that are pedestrian-friendly are just one of the many aspects that exercise areas are. Keith stated that school districts across the nation are trying to cut back on physical education curriculums.

If they aren’t achieving physical literacy at school, they’re more likely to engage in an unhealthy lifestyle and are more prone to injuries, she said.

“It’s more than games and fun. It can impact our economic situation, our security and our health outcomes and even our health. It’s crucial that everyone are physical active.” Keith said at the America Society of Nutrition (ASN) event last week.


Strategies to address Exercise Deserts

The White House is set to host its own conference on nutrition, hunger and health in September. Alongside other health issues for the public this conference will focus on strategies to “support the physical activity of all” by looking for solutions to help make it more secure for people to get active outdoors.

For starters, Keith said it’s important to make use of existing resources in the community. Keith suggested schools provide track, playgrounds, and fitness rooms to members of the community even when they’re not utilized by students.

Programs such as Chicago’s PlayStreets which sees roads temporarily shut off to traffic to encourage biking, walking and other types that exercise have demonstrated as a feasible solution in areas that have little fitness resources.

Keith has also stressed that it is important to create permanent areas that encourage “destination strolling” by decreasing speed limits, changing crossings, and fixing sidewalks.

“If your age is older or you’re crossing the street, and the crossing point gives the pedestrian 30 minutes, that’s not enough time,” she said.

Exercise deserts are often connected with food deserts which don’t have access to healthy and fresh food items. If there is a farmer’s market located in your area, Keith said, volunteering at the market can be a great option to increase your fitness and also contribute to the community.


It’s not like everyone got to Workout More during the Pandemic

There is evidence that suggests the amount of physical activity were higher during the pandemic. Although gyms were shut there were many who found ways to keep active through walking, cleaning out their garage, or by gardening. “People wanted to do something other than sitting at home in front of Zoom for hours on end,” Keith said.

The pandemic has also increased racial and gender differences in levels of physical activity. Women, who are traditionally responsible for more elder and child responsibility for care were found to be less active than males in an investigation in 2021. The study also revealed the fact that Black Americans, who may be more likely to reside in areas with no exercise as well, were less engaged as White Americans.

Although some individuals have found innovative ways to keep active, the epidemic brought out the need for more equitable strategies for all to exercise at home and within their communities.

“People are diverse in the things they’ll engage in in terms their activities. So, taking care to address that diversities is essential,” Keith said.

What does this mean for you?

When considering solutions to the problem of exercise deserts it is vital that health professionals in the public sector take into consideration Americans of all capabilities. If you use wheelchairs or other mobility device the sidewalks that are damaged can be a significant obstacle for them for them to participate with physical activities within their community.

If you’d like to contribute to the White House’s forthcoming event regarding Hunger, Nutrition, and Health that will discuss ways to ensure secure environments for physical fitness, you can share your thoughts and stories via their website.