Physical activity is critical to raising a healthier generation of kids in San Antonio, where kids face high risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

But what do we mean by “physical activity?”

There’s an important distinction among physical activity for health, exercise for fitness, and a sedentary lifestyle (and also between weight status and nutrition). Each affect health through unique biological processes and mechanisms, and thus shouldn’t be simplified or categorized as one.

For example, running one marathon a year doesn’t counter the harmful effects of sitting all day any more than eating an apple counters the harmful effects of smoking. A healthy lifestyle means regularly moving more and sitting less.

That’s where the problem comes in — not all kids have the same opportunities to move more.

Latino kids have less opportunity for physical activity in and out of school than their white peers, according to a recent research review from Salud America!, a national obesity prevention research network based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Outside of school, Latino kids lack access to sidewalks and parks which provide safe places to walk, bike, and play. When neighborhoods don’t have safe parks and when parents don’t feel safe letting their kids walk to school, Latino kids’ physical activity levels decrease and their chances of obesity, chronic disease, and becoming overweight increase.

This situation has particularly grim social, economic, and health consequences in San Antonio, where 30% of the Latino population is younger than 18, compared to 19% of non-Latinos. Federal data estimates that one of every two Latino children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. If Latino childhood obesity remains unchecked, the entire city will feel the consequences.

So, how can San Antonio ensure that the growing population of Latino kids has access to safe places to walk and bike in order to obtain the numerous health benefits of incremental physical activity?

The city should connect with groups and organizations that are already working to make the healthy choice the easy choice. The Active Living Council of San Antonio — a public-private partnership of policymakers, business leaders, school administrators, program providers, and community members — developed the Active Living Plan for a Healthier San Antonio. The plan is based on the National Physical Activity Plan with the most up-to-date, relevant strategies and tactics across eight sectors of society: business; education; healthcare; mass media; public health; volunteer and non-profit; parks, recreation, fitness and sports; and transportation, land use and community design.

When stakeholders across various sectors of society address the strategies and tactics in the plan, they can initiate and support policies, funding, and programs to increase physical activity across the entire city.

Check out these case studies of successful healthy change involving many groups and sectors.

Playful Neighborhoods

In South Texas, Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit organization that works to build affordable homes for residents in the colonias, used locally-targeted research and focus groups of homeowners to create an internal policy to include sidewalks, hike/bike trails, and a playground in the plans for an affordable housing neighborhood in Hidalgo County. The policy’s goal was to increase physical activity levels and reduce obesity and diabetes.

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A local researcher identified some of the barriers to physical activity, like trash on the streets, stray dogs, gangs, bad outdoor odors, muddy streets, speeding cars, and dirty playgrounds with rusty equipment. An environmental audit showed that almost all streets lacked sidewalks, pedestrian signage, and parks. Children reported that they would be more active if they had street lights, parks, places to walk, and recreational facilities.

The researcher shared this information with city officials and other stakeholders in public meetings. The leadership of Proyecto Azteca, including Executive Director Ann Cass and Assistant Executive Director and Construction Supervisor Saul Villarreal, took the information from these meetings and became motivated to secure funding for double-wide sidewalks, hike and bike trails, a playground, a basketball court, and a community center in their affordable housing development in Edcouch, Texas.

“These are things that we more than likely would have neglected in our planning had it not been for the research…shared with us,” Cass said.

Complete Streets

The concept of Complete Streets calls for streets that accommodate the transportation needs of pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and public transportation users, which can then pave way for both additional recreation opportunities and safer, easier transit to existing recreational facilities as a way to increase physical activity levels and reduce childhood obesity.

Not a lot of streets in San Antonio are considered Complete Streets.

Livability Coordinator David Clear and Chronic Disease Prevention Manager Kathy Shields from the City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health Department (Metro Health) and Transportation Planning Manager Trish Wallace from the San Antonio Department of Planning & Community Development, among others, thought about how to create a policy for Complete Streets in their proposal for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant. The grant was different from others because it required Metro Health to use an approach that would support policy and environmental changes.

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They ended up modifying the city’s unified development code to incorporate a Complete Streets policy that covers new projects undertaken by the city. They believed this would be the best way to ensure that developers from the private sector hold to Complete Street standards when proposing new projects throughout the city.

“Complete Streets is reinforcing the active living concept,” Wallace said. “Evolution of the process is a success in itself.”

Residents continue to voice a desire for many more Complete Streets in San Antonio and other cities — not just for new projects. Salud America! provides nationwide resources to help city leaders learn from other cities and put Complete Streets policies into action.

Transforming an Alley into a Greenway

In Lake Worth, Fla., city staff, a researcher, a school district employee, and community members redeveloped an abandoned alley into an attractive greenway in a predominantly Latino area to increase the area’s walkability and connect two neighborhoods to a nearby high school.

Dr. Ruth McCaffrey, a nurse and professor at Florida Atlantic University, sought out a park building grant to develop attractive green spaces for an underserved urban population. During the proposal process she reached out to community leaders who shared her vision.

The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency agreed to work in collaboration with her to apply for a transportation alternatives program grant through the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization. The city even agreed to include and connect bikeways to the greenway as part of the city’s Bicycle Network Plan.

Groups like the Palm Beach School District’s Physical Education and Health Department, the Rotary Club of Lake Worth, the Lake Worth Arts and Cultural Community, the Genesis Neighborhood Association, and the Tropical Ridge Neighborhood Association drafted letters of support and community members signed a petition supporting a greenway that would offer them alternate modes of transportation as well as a safe and inviting place to be physically active, while connecting them to other parts of the city.

Once complete, the 5th Avenue South Bikeway and Pedestrian Project will span five blocks and 1,520 feet, and will be maintained by the city’s parks system. These are the kind of actions and projects people can start and support to boost physical activity in San Antonio and beyond.

Our Salud America! website has fantastic stories, changes, and resources to help you start or support a healthy change to make your community a healthier place for kids. Become a Salud Leader and get started today.

Not only will you instantly join a local and national movement of people like you interested in healthy changes for Latino kids, you’ll get free perks like a spot on our national map, the ability to connect with other leaders who might support you (or vice versa), customized data about local health issues, and personal assistance from a curator who can help you get started in making or supporting a change or write up and promote a change that you’ve already made.

See you at Salud America!.

Top image: Children play a game of catch not far from the stage at the 35th Tejano Conjunto Festival at Rosedale Park.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

How Taste Impacts Healthy Eating

Salud America! Keeping Latino Children Fit and Healthy

Nutrition Summit: Turning the Tide of Type 2 Diabetes

San Antonio: A City at War Against Diabetes

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Amanda Merck

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.