Active communities are healthier communities

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Active communities make it easy for people to include physical activity in their daily lives. From small rural townships to large urban centers and everything in between, communities have different needs and face different barriers when it comes to developing infrastructure that makes it easy for residents to be active. Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Promoting Active Communities (The PAC) assessment offers a set of online tools to help Michigan communities create safe places for people to be active and/or find solutions to the barriers that prevent people from being active in their communities.  
Involving community members from the outset is vital for success because The PAC is a team effort. It is designed to help community members, planners, and other stakeholders come together and collaborate to ensure everyone has a voice about how the community can support active living. 

Cyclist riding on the Fred Meijer Kenowa Trail near Jamestown. “The PAC asks those involved to go out and walk, bike, and roll in their community to learn about the built environment,” says MFF Senior Director of Community Impact Sarah Panken. “This gives them firsthand knowledge about what people experience when getting around in their community by foot or bike. It also helps identify assets and barriers so they can be addressed.” 
The PAC is made possible in part through MFF Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.  

Cyclists riding the Fred Meijer Kenowa Trail meet up at the Jamestown General Store.MFF organizations delivering SNAP-Ed have been using The PAC collaboratively with local teams in the communities they serve. Local teams can include people from the local transportation department, public works, a planning department, development authorities, health department or hospital staff, neighborhood associations, and local tribal communities. 
Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District (GIRESD) used The PAC to look at whether people could safely and conveniently reach destinations, like recreation areas and health care facilities, by walking and biking. They looked at the condition of sidewalks, whether the parks were well lit, and assessed accessibility for people with disabilities. They also looked at street crossings around schools to learn if they were safe for children using a bicycle or getting on and off buses.  
After completing a walking audit, they realized sidewalk conditions needed improvement. Many said they would not have known this without The PAC. This is not unusual. Communities using The PAC find this commonality. Because most places were designed to be car-centric, people who travel by car often do not realize that community assets like sidewalks are in disrepair.  
They also found the park was in need of lighting, determined it was an easy fix, and are working on improvements. By using The PAC, they were able to understand the barriers and create an action plan to address them to improve their community. 
“Investing in and maintaining a connected transportation network that supports walking and biking is a foundational element of advancing positive health behaviors,” explains Panken. “When the risks are removed, people feel safer to be active. The PAC helps bring things to light, like fixing a sidewalk or adding a bike lane that can help propel community health forward in a positive way.” 
With the growth of urbanization, and people spending more time inside, it is more important than ever to reduce sedentary lifestyles and increase physical activity behaviors. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, in addition to good nutrition, physical activity has immediate and long term health benefits and can help manage more health conditions that Americans already have.  

People gather to watch street performers in downtown Holland. Development of The PAC was informed in an interdisciplinary way with guidance from those working in the active transportation, community development, and physical activity fields. MFF has updated The PAC online tools to ensure they are aligned with current active living strategies and enhance user-friendliness.  
"As a part of our ongoing commitment to review our resources, we took some time to refresh The PAC,” shares Panken. “We incorporated research-based best practices, information from communities that had implemented The PAC through their SNAP-Ed policy, systems, and environmental change work, and feedback from community members about what would help them be more physically active in their communities.” 
The input has helped improve The PAC and ensure it is up to date with what factors are important to consider related to policies, programs, and the built environment that support physical activity. Rooted in what the latest evidence shows, The PAC has three areas of focus: the current environment, policies and planning, and programming and promotion. Assessment modules can be combined in any way that is useful for communities. For example, The PAC enables each community to assess parts of their community, such as commercial districts or parks and recreation areas, where they want to focus their efforts.  
"The PAC helps them learn what they have in their community inventory,” says MFF Grants Program Manager Sarah Mott. “It helps them learn where their community is strong regarding active living, and it also highlights opportunities where they can do more.” 

Friends cycling in Millennium Park in Walker. The PAC also helps communities think about new infrastructure improvements. For example, The PAC Parks and Recreation module takes into account the rapid expansion of Michigan’s multiuse trails system over the last few years by asking communities to inventory the trails coming in and out of their communities. Then, they can think about how they use or could use trails as a community asset by connecting those trails to parks, schools, downtown shops and restaurants, neighborhoods, etc. so that people can use active transportation to reach destinations.  
And The PAC helps communities develop both short-term and long-term objectives. 
"It can be really great for a community to work on short-term changes while also pursuing some of those longer-range efforts," says Mott. "Something like installing bike racks at the park might be able to happen in a few months. But a more complex solution, like a Complete Streets policy, for a community might take a lot longer." 
For each PAC module completed, a community receives a feedback report that guides next steps and can be part of an action plan to make changes, bringing together stakeholders to ensure goals are met that are representative of the community as a whole. 
"The PAC provides objective information for decision makers and funders," says Mott. "Using the results of what they’ve learned and being able to present it succinctly equips communities with what they need to move forward and create vibrant places." 
Research shows people are more likely to be physically active if active recreation and transportation opportunities are nearby and easy to access. Beyond the physical activity aspects, there are other benefits for the community, like boosting the local economy, a rise in property value, promoting a cleaner environment, increasing social equity, and enhancing community connections. 
“Active communities are also fun places to live,” says Mott. 
“The PAC is such a great resource,” says Panken. “When a community takes steps to increase physical activity opportunities, they are prioritizing residents’ health, investing in neighborhoods, and strengthening the community for generations to come. Ultimately, they are creating a culture of health.” 
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