ALR 2014: Moving Active Living from Niche to Norm

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March 24, 2014
By Jim Sallis
ALR 2014: Moving Active Living from Niche to Norm

To me, it seemed to work. ALR 2014, the 11th Conference, produced a mix of science, ideas for practice, better ideas about how to translate research to policy, new relationships, enjoyable food and activity, and fun. Just about what we planned for and hoped for. Many people told me it was successful. Presentations from the conferemce are posted. You can view additional photos from the conference on our Facebook page.

The theme for the ALR 2014 was Niche to Norm. Active living research has gone from a small niche of investigation to the mainstream of research, and it is definitely influencing policy and practice. However, active living environments and policies are far from the norm, and that's where we need to be if we are going to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic and reduce risk of chronic diseases. Our distinguished keynote speaker was Jonathan Fielding, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health and professor at UCLA. He gave many examples of how environments and policies supporting active living are becoming the norm in LA County, and this is significant given the population of 10 million people. Many of the 88 cities now have bicycle and pedestrian plans and health goals in their general plans. Sprawling, car-centric LA is becoming bicycle-friendly, and its CicLAvia events attract 100,000+ walkers, cyclists, and skaters. They are several strategies to target low-income neighborhoods and communities of color with the worst health outcomes. Jonathan showed us how change is possible on a large scale.

An outstanding panel gave many more examples of change and how it is accomplished. Larry Morandi from the National Conference of State Legislators moderated a panel of national and local leaders. Larry encouraged us with stories of legislators working across party lines to improve physical activity in schools. Geoff Anderson from Smart Growth America explained how they are focusing on state and local efforts because of stagnation in Congress. Examples of moving toward the norm include 70% success in passing local taxes to support active transportation and 600 complete street policies, including those in about half the states. Jean Armbruster directs the PLACE project in LA County and gave many more examples of initiatives to achieve environment and policy change. She described impressive efforts to ensure these multi-sector programs are targeted to reducing health disparities. Mayor Chip Johnson of Hernando, Mississippi is developing a national reputation as a leader for healthy cities, and his success is indicated by Hernando being named the first "Healthiest City" in Mississippi. As a native of this state, I am proud of this positive leadership. His main motivation is to give his citizens every opportunity to make healthy choices, but he also understands there are other benefits. A company with a contract to make parts for Boeing recently announced it was building a $100 million plant in his town because it is a town where its employees want to live. If word gets out about the economic co-benefits of creating healthy environments, then this may become a norm for mayors.

Many thanks to the program committee which represented diverse disciplines and perspectives and helped shape the program. Special thanks to Keshia Pollack of Johns Hopkins who was a great co-host and introduced several innovations that are mentioned below. But the high point of every ALR conference is the contribution of all the attendees. The wide diversity of disciplines is the defining feature of ALR Conferences, and the mix of researchers, practitioners, advocates, and policy professionals has been improving every year. I was surprised at how many people attended ALR for the first time; it seemed like about 40%. We hope you return--and tell your colleagues.

We like to try new features each year, and Keshia Pollack suggested some good ones. Allowing attendees to vote on posters with the best content and visual presentation made for an even more engaging poster session. Expect to see this again next year. Our goal of sharing the conference through twitter was dramatically enhanced by a contest that required at least 10 relevant tweets. Attendees commented on everything from the keynote and paper sessions to the quality of the food and enjoyment of the activity breaks.

Active applause, activity breaks during plenary sessions, and extended activity breaks are a tradition at ALR and contribute to a more engaging Conference. Active applause has been adopted by several small and large groups, but activity breaks in conferences are rare. We had several special activity events this year, including a hip-hop dance class and a sample of SPARK physical education. We journeyed to Africa with a session organized by UCSD faculty member Kate Murray who works with the Somali refugee community in San Diego. A Somali group in spectacular costumes shared their dance and culture with attendees. We worked up a joyous sweat in a West African dance class led by an outstanding teacher from SDSU.

On the final day we held a tribute to Dr Toni Yancey, a physician/scholar/poet/advocate and developer of Instant Recess who tragically died of lung cancer last April 23, 2013. Keshia Pollack, Melicia Whitt-Glover, and myself shared our thoughts, and we were honored to hear from Darlene Edgely who was Toni's partner. The tribute was an introduction to the official ALR Instant Recess video that was recorded at the end of ALR 2013 conference. The video was choreographed at an ALR workshop and can be freely accessed on the ALR YouTube channel. I invite you to use it in your meetings and create an Instant Recess for your own organizations.

Thanks to a special grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, managed by Tracy Orleans, our project officer, we were able to have the first-ever ALR International Symposium. The purposes were to share lessons learned from obesity prevention and physical activity promotion initiatives in Latin America and to discuss challenges in international research with Latinos. Two remarkable panels presented experiences from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and San Diego. Many thanks to Mike Pratt of CDC who played a key role in organizing the session.

The most important part of ALR 2014 starts now. The findings, friendships, strategies, and resources need to be put to use. Please use the energy and enthusiasm generated at ALR 2014 to power improved interactions among research, practice, and policy. Let's all do better at creating a more active world. Let's make active living the norm.

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