PEARL: Partners Enabling Active Rural Living

The Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities has embarked on research to create a model for active rural living. Through the Partners Enabling Active Rural Living (PEARL) project, the Center is examining the factors that influence rural-community residents’ physical-activity behaviors.

Faculty and student researchers are teaming with rural residents to identify environmental, personal and organizational factors that enable or prevent active living in residents’ communities. With this community-based participatory research, the Center will strive to inform planning, action and policies to enhance the physical-activity resources available to rural residents.

Students and volunteers used GPS and digital cameras to map environmental features that encourage or obstruct active living.
Students and volunteers used GPS and digital cameras to map environmental features that encourage or obstruct active living.

The project’s first phase launched in spring 2009, when researchers teamed with residents to create “active-living maps” for three rural New Hampshire towns. Using technology developed by University of Wisconsin researchers called participatory photo mapping, resident volunteers employed digital cameras and GPS navigation devices to map environmental features that encourage or obstruct active living in each town.

With photos, GPS data and resident comments collected individually and in focus groups, researchers are developing Google-style activity maps of each community. They are also using the themes that emerged from residents’ observations and other qualitative data to structure a conceptual model of activity-friendly rural towns.

Researchers presented the PEARL project’s early findings at the 2010 Active Living Research Conference in San Diego. Among their discoveries:

  • On an individual level, factors that support active rural living include a value for and strong beliefs in the benefits of active lifestyles, regardless of the real or perceived environmental obstacles. Rural people who value an active lifestyle and believe in the benefits of active living find ways to be physically active despite obstacles.
  • On an environmental level, researchers identified a lack of active transportation routes, lack of access to structured programs and lack of sustainable support (financial and personnel) for emerging opportunities as barriers to active living.
  • Although host communities are rich with natural environmental resources for winter and summer recreational physical activities – such as rivers, ponds and trails for walking, hiking, biking and skiing – only the residents who are interested in and value these types of activities use the resources.
  • Efforts to promote active living in rural areas must consider how the attributes of people interact with the attributes of place when designing programs, modifying environments and enacting policies that are expected to affect individual behavior.

As researchers prepare final summary reports on PEARL’s first phase, the Center is seeking to expand the project to other rural communities.