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Friday, June 2, 2023

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Get up, Get out.

Psychologist James Sallis finds impediments to healthy living are all around us
By Michael James Mahin

James Sallis, Ph.D., SDSU psychology professor and 2010 Albert W. Johnson Research Lecturer, has this advice for Americans: Take a hike. Literally.

Sallis’ solution to the nation’s health care crisis is straightforward. He wants Americans to get active. But that—as Sallis has discovered during a pioneering 30-year career in health psychology and public health—is easier said than done.

Over the past few decades, the consequences of physical inactivity have proved catastrophic. As obesity continues to rise in adults and children, research increasingly indicates that sedentary people are more prone to chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.

Sallis’ “active living” creed and his research into how public policy affects physical activity are more important than ever.

“Many people assume that active living means joining a gym,” said Sallis. “But active living is really about the integration of physical activity of all types and purposes into our daily routines. It’s about creating conditions conducive to lifelong wellness.”

A SPARK of inspiration

Sallis’ career began with a simple premise—active people are healthier and happier. He was interested in the psychological factors that motivate or impede healthy living, particularly in children. What he found was that poorly designed policies and environments can trump motivation.

While elementary school physical education (PE) was the primary social institution for promoting childhood activity, little research had been done on its effectiveness. In fact, PE programs were failing to meet their mandate. Studies showed students did very little physical activity in PE class.

“We realized that in order for PE to have a public health benefit,” Sallis said, “it would have to address not only physical activity during school, but also lifelong wellness habits and values outside of school.”

In 1989, Sallis and SDSU colleague Thomas McKenzie, Ph.D., turned this active living philosophy into the Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids program, or SPARK. A five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed Sallis and McKenzie to begin developing SPARK as an evidence-based, physical education and instructor training program.

Now in place in thousands of schools across America, SPARK has been cited by a U.S. Surgeon General’s report as a “school-based solution to our nation’s health care crisis.”

Changing public policy

The role that government-mandated school PE programs play in developing lifelong wellness made Sallis keenly aware that healthy living is not just a matter of personal habit, but also of public policy.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sallis founded the Active Living Research Program (ALRP), a $27 million grant-making program with the goal of building evidence about environmental and policy changes that could encourage active living.

“The truth is,” says Sallis, “people are by nature sedentary. We’d rather sit than stand. But there are also other important environmental factors to consider. One has simply to look at our urban landscape to understand how it discourages activity. Ever walked or biked along the side of a busy street? It’s dangerous. And danger is discouraging.”

Sallis said strong evidence is needed to inform policy makers about the consequences of their decisions and to provide alternatives. Research through ALR—and other Sallis-directed studies funded by the NIH—is providing that evidence to policymakers and scientists.

After helping to establish a new field of study that unites investigators from public health, city planning, parks and recreation and education, ALR has now been charged with supporting research to help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.

And Sallis’ active living creed will become part of a solution that begins with acquiring healthy habits as children, and ends with building communities that make it convenient and enjoyable to integrate those habits into our everyday adult lives.

Sallis will present the 2010 Albert W. Johnson Lecture at 3 p.m. on March 12 in Arts and Letters. Admission is free.