Want to Get More Physically Active? Cue in to Your Environment!

By Cindy Winters, manager, Heart of New Ulm Project

Picture this: You’re standing in line at the grocery store when you find yourself putting a package of candy or gum in your cart. It certainly wasn’t on your shopping list; it hadn’t even crossed your mind. But when you found yourself with some time to kill in line, it just drew you in.

If you’re like most people, this scenario sounds plenty familiar. Of course, it’s not by accident, either. Marketing and merchandising pros strategically place certain items in prime locations to entice us to impulsively make a purchase. The strategy uses these environmental cues — or “prompts” — to shape our behavior and our decisions.

Environmental cues are all around us, and studies have shown that health-related prompts at the point of decision remind us to make healthier choices. For example, the Heart of New Ulm Project used environmental cues for our SWAP IT to DROP IT campaign in stores and restaurants, because putting a sign at the point where people make a decision on what to buy helps prompt us to make healthier decisions. A sign near an elevator that reminds people to take the stairs encourages us to do so and get some extra physical activity. 

Outdoors, there are also plenty of cues designed to prompt us to want to spend more time in a particular location or to use amenities more often. Think about the benches, plants and ornamental lighting you see along sidewalks or paths. Well-maintained paths, street lighting, safety from traffic, destination points such as shops or schools and safe green spaces have all been shown to increase the amount of walking and physical activity that people do. 

Similarly, placing brightly colored or attractive bike racks where people can see them and where they are easily accessible increases their use and decreases possible theft. Bike planners recommend placing a bike rack within 50 feet of an entrance or at least as close as the nearest vehicle parking stall.

The idea is the same with the outdoor fitness equipment and bicycle improvements that our community earned through the LOSE IT to WIN IT challenge. The hope is that once they’re in place, they’ll encourage people in our community to be more active. All of these approaches to modifying the environment have the potential for much longer-lasting effects on our behavior than individual-level interventions. 

So, next time you go out for a walk or bike ride, pay close attention to the route you choose to take. What draws you to take that particular route? Are you going someplace in particular? If you live within a mile or two of a location that you frequently visit when running errands, would you walk or bike there instead of driving if the route felt safe and was aesthetically pleasing? Could the route be enhanced to be safer, more attractive or more interesting in order to provide a more supportive environment for walking or biking?

Whether for recreation or out of necessity, all of these considerations play into the decisions we make about how we choose to travel and how active we are. Cue into your environment this summer and see how it can help support you in your physical activity goals!