Do You Live in an 'Exercise Desert'?

rift between exercise and apartment buildings

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • People living in exercise deserts face issues in their built environments that make it difficult to be physically active.
  • Low-income neighborhoods are most likely to be considered exercise deserts.
  • Experts are advocating for diverse solutions to make it safer and easier for Americans of all abilities to be physically active in their own neighborhoods.

A quarter of Americans don't get enough physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But some people may not be able to get enough exercise simply because of where they live.

Some Americans live in an "exercise desert," where they have no access to an affordable gym, safe and well-lit green spaces, bike lanes, or well-maintained sidewalks.

NiCole Keith, PhD, FACSM, a kinesiology professor at Indiana University, and her colleague coined the term "exercise desert" 15 years ago to describe places where people's fitness opportunities are limited by their built environment.

"The opportunities for people to be physically active where they live or work or play or pray or learn is limited based on the socioeconomic status of the community," Keith told Verywell.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week.

Neighborhoods with cracked sidewalks or roads with high speed limits create a barrier for people to be physically active in their own community.

For example, a 2021 study conducted in Pontiac, Michigan found that almost 60% of the city's sidewalks were damaged and over 80% didn't have enough street lamps or shade. And the report found that these problems were the most prevalent in low-income neighborhoods.

Pedestrian-friendly roads are just one aspect of exercise deserts. Keith said that school districts across the country are also looking to reduce their physical education programs.

If students aren't attaining physical literacy from school, they are more likely to adopt sedentary behavior and be prone to injury, she added.

"It's more than just fun and games. It really can affect our economy, our national security, our health outcomes, and our public health. It's really important that people have opportunities to be physically active," Keith said at the America Society of Nutrition (ASN) conference last week.

Strategies to Address Exercise Deserts

The White House is set to host its own conference on hunger, nutrition, and health this September. Among other public health topics, the conference will address ways to "support physical activity for all" by finding ways to make it safer for people to be active outside.

To start, Keith said it's important to try to leverage existing resources in a community. She suggested that schools open playgrounds, tracks, and weight rooms to community members when they are not being used by students.

Programs like Chicago's PlayStreets, where roads are temporarily closed off to cars to encourage walking, biking, and other forms of exercise, have been shown as a successful solution in areas with limited fitness resources.

Keith also emphasized the importance of creating more permanent environments that promote "destination walking" by lowering speed limits, adjusting crosswalks, and repairing sidewalks.

"If you're an older adult, and you're trying to cross the street and the crosswalk gives you 30 seconds, it's not long enough," she said.

Exercise deserts often intersect with food deserts that lack proper access to fresh and nutritious foods. If a farmers market is available in your area, Keith said, volunteering at the market is a good way to both get your physical exercise up and contribute to your community.

Not Everyone Got to Exercise More During the Pandemic

Some research suggests that physical activity levels increased during the pandemic. Despite gyms being closed, many people found ways to stay active by hiking, cleaning out their garage, or gardening. "People wanted to do things besides sitting in their house on Zoom all the time," Keith said.

However, the pandemic also increased gender and racial disparities in physical activity levels. Women, who traditionally bear more child and elder care responsibilities, were found to be less physically active than men, according to a 2021 study. This study also found that Black Americans, who may be more likely to live in exercise deserts, were also less physically active than White Americans.

While some people found creative ways to stay active, the pandemic highlighted the need to develop more equitable solutions for everyone to be physically active at home and in their neighborhood.

"People are diverse in what they'll do in terms of activity. And so really addressing that diversity is important," Keith said.

What This Means For You

When thinking about solutions to exercise deserts, it is crucial that public health professionals think about Americans of all abilities. For people who use a wheelchair or another mobility assistive device, damaged sidewalks can be a significant barrier to engage in physical activities in their neighborhood.

If you would like to help inform the White House's upcoming conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which will be discussing ways to create safe environments for physical fitness, you can submit your stories and ideas on their website.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. CDC releases updated maps of America’s high levels of inactivity.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy people 2030 - neighborhood and built environment.

  4. Rajaee M, Echeverri B, Zuchowicz Z, Wiltfang K, Lucarelli JF. Socioeconomic and racial disparities of sidewalk quality in a traditional rust belt citySSM - Population Health. 2021;16. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100975

  5. Pollack Porter KM, Prochnow T, Mahoney P, et al. Transforming city streets to promote physical activity and health equityHealth Affairs. 2019;38(9):1475-1483. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2019.00454

  6. Sher C, Wu C. Who stays physically active during COVID-19? Inequality and exercise patterns in the United StatesSocius. 2021;7. doi:10.1177/2378023120987710

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity for people with disability.