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Physical activity in Latin America

By Raveena Mata, MA candidate in medical anthropology at Wayne State University;
Colonel Carroll A. Ockert Award Scholar
in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track

Last week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah Salvo, PhD, an Assistant Professor and Researcher at Washington University’s Brown School as part of the Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track seminar series. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives across the world, many of us may have forgotten about another pandemic in our midst: lack of physical activity (PA). Dr. Salvo’s work lies at the intersection of spatial and behavioral aspects of epidemiology, and aims to understand “The Role of Urban Context on Physical Activity and Health in Latin America”.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras: A bird’s eye view

Latin America (LA) is the most urbanized region of the world, with about 80% of its population living in urban settings. However, little research has been done on PA in LA despite concerns about transportation, chronic disease, and economic and social inequalities.

Through her work with the International Physical Activity Environment Network (IPEN), Dr. Salvo establishes the need to not only expand global research on this overlooked topic, but also to reevaluate the frameworks through which we view the roles that environment and “choice” play in PA. For example, in high income countries (HIC) such as the US, PA is often viewed as a personal choice that one engages in. However, in many Latin American cities, “PA may be more reflective of need rather than choice since a significant proportion of the population walks and uses public transit because they have no other option for transportation”. Though we generally associate PA with a healthy lifestyle, in some contexts, it may be a symptom of profound inequity.

Simply put, context matters. Therefore, we cannot assume that the same solutions that might be effective in Paris will work to improve physical activity across the board in Bogota, Hong Kong, and Seattle.

It is crucial to note that research is lacking where it is most needed. The following map depicts the stark contrast between where PA research most often occurs and where it is most needed:

Thus, collaborative learning and partnerships between researchers and communities in both HIC and low and middle income countries (LMIC) are critical to establishing the evidence to foster change in individual behaviors, community environments, and national policies. In Dr. Salvo’s own words, “there is so much work left to be done”.

As our world continues to transform in unexpected ways during the current pandemic, Dr. Salvo reminds us to seek windows of opportunity for urban transformation. While public transportation shut-downs may have disrupted life for so many across the globe, we can harness changes like these to redesign our urban environments to encourage PA and improve our collective health.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.