UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A new campaign is coming to town, and it wants Nittany Lions to move a little more.
Active Lions is a two-pronged research and outreach initiative that includes a social marketing campaign and accompanying smartphone application to encourage active travel – such as walking and cycling – for Penn State students, faculty and staff.
Set to launch this month, the project is led by principal investigator Melissa Bopp, associate professor of kinesiology, and made possible by a grant from the Penn State Sustainability Institute.
Understanding the research
The idea for the project grew out of research Bopp has been conducting for a number of years that examines what factors influence active travel and people’s travel choices.
“(We look at) what makes people walk or bike to campus,” she said.
Active Lions team members include Liza Rovniak, assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences at Hershey Medical Center; Stephen Matthews, professor of sociology, anthropology and demography of the College of Liberal Arts; and Erika Poole, assistant professor of the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Additionally, two student research assistants, Dangaia Sims and Joanna Colgan, are responsible for coordinating evaluation procedures.
Bopp’s study of 763 Penn State students in fall 2012 examined travel patterns. Among respondents, 31.7 percent reported no active travel to campus in a typical week. Some of the most significant influences on travel mode included perceived lack of time, environmental influences (sidewalks, bike lane availability, difficult terrain, traffic, distance from campus) and social environment (having someone to actively travel with). Findings also revealed that overweight students had lower rates of AT and reported fewer supports for AT (availability of bike parking at their place of residence, living further from campus), indicating that there is a possible overlap of health and behavior even among this young population, according to the project proposal.
Within a larger study on active commuting to work, Bopp and her team completed analyses on a sub-sample from Centre County, which included a number of individuals who worked on campus. Among 473 respondents, walking and biking to work was fairly uncommon; 17 percent of individuals reported AT one or more times a week. The majority perceived their community to be pedestrian and bike friendly, though 23 percent reported that a hilly terrain was a significant barrier to AT. Individuals who reported greater workplace support for AT (offering incentives for AT, hosting events or promotions around AT, offering bike parking, lockers or changing rooms) were more likely to report AT as well as those who report that their coworkers actively travel to work.
Students from Bopp’s KINES 497F class (Physical Activity and Public Health) last spring also assisted in the research and some of the project’s formative work.
“As part of our class project in the spring, every student in the class helped conduct research by having (Penn State) students, faculty and staff fill out surveys asking questions about the individual’s demographics, the distance they live from campus, and how they normally commute to campus,” said Ron Green, a kinesiology major and student in Bopp’s spring 2014 class. “It was our hope that with all of this information, we could better assess the best way to increase active travel on campus.”
An app with an idea
Though the Active Lions smartphone application is designed for the Penn State community, it can be accessed anywhere by anyone, Bopp said.
The main hope with the app, which is free to download and use, is to give people the tools to make as active choices as possible when it comes to travel, she said.
One of the many features includes route planning, Bopp said, which can be used to identify the best ways to get to campus safely and efficiently.
Through research, time was found to be a significant factor, especially among students, when it came to making choices about travel. The app can help users determine if it’s faster to walk or bike to class rather than wait for public transportation, she said.
“I am most excited to see the opportunities for active travel we can create using Active Lions,” Green said. “In our research, a lot of students, faculty and staff did not want to bike to campus because they feel it is dangerous. With the Active Lions app, they may be able to plan a safer route and even log information about the trip.”
In addition to route planning, the app also provides users with tools for behavior change, Bopp said.
These include reminders about the user’s scheduled travel plans; information on weather, such as temperature and wind index; setting goals, such as walking to work three times a week; and rewards and feedback for achieving those goals, Bopp said.
Why active transportation?
Active travel may help reduce cardiovascular disease and stress levels, and may help improve mental health, Bopp said.
“We know that active transportation is associated with a whole host of health benefits,” she said.
Other benefits may include lower risk of obesity and improved metabolic profile.
“A lot of people in this community who want to exercise have trouble finding the free time to do so,” Green said. “Active Lions can show people that being active does not have to involve a gym membership, just some motivation and a different way of commuting to school (or) work.”
Active transportation may also benefit the environment, Bopp said.
Those who bike or walk to work could save money by not buying fuel and help the planet by not burning fuel. Plus, they are getting exercise at the same time, she said.
“It’s a win-win,” Bopp said. “There are a lot of great advantages to active transportation.”
State College and Penn State are great locations for Active Lions, Bopp added. Both have both been designated as a bike friendly by the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly America program. State College and Penn State have achieved bronze level statuses, which means the community is supportive of cycling through its infrastructure, parking, law enforcement and programs that encourage biking, Bopp said. However, it also means there’s room for improvement. Platinum, gold and silver designations precede bronze.
“I definitely think the Active Lions project really fits into that,” she said. “I think it’s a great starting point.”
According to the LAB’s website, there are currently 60 bicycle-friendly communities named for 2014; State College – Centre Region is among them.
“Eventually I’d like to see this project go beyond State College and Penn State, and (reach) other Commonwealth Campuses,” Bopp said.
Active Lions is a Penn State Sustainability Institute Reinvention Fund project. Additional partnerships include the Centre Region Bike Coalition and Penn State Transportation Services.