As a blossoming public health nerd, I’ve become fascinated with how the built environment affects my health and wellness.

Listening to Wednesday’s Annual Meeting session on “Built Environment: Walking, Active Transport and Active Living,” I was struck by both the opportunities our built environment affords us as well as the many disparities people face in trying to access active transportation. Adam Hege, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Appalachian State University, shed light on why it’s so difficult for people in rural areas to take part in active transportation. A lot of the time, he told attendees, walking just isn’t a viable option.

Hege’s research used rural active living assessment tools to examine the physical environment of communities in northwestern North Carolina. Communities were assessed on factors such the presence of sidewalks and shoulders and the relative walkability of each town. (Although Hege noted that there’s conflicting research on the value of sidewalks in rural communities.)

The research pointed to some important environmental determinants of health. For example, parks and playgrounds were easily accessible in many towns, as were spaces for social gatherings. All these resources are wonderful for public health, as they give people places to exercise and form connections with one another. Yet, there was wide variability in people’s access to schools, trails and other recreational facilities, Hege said.

With people in rural areas typically so spread out, driving is often a must. Unfortunately, that isn’t great news for the environment, nor is it beneficial for people’s physical health.

Many rural communities also struggle with few employment opportunities, meaning people tend to live outside designated town limits. Such limitations are a whole new point to consider — as Hege noted: Is an active living environment even possible in many rural areas?

Rural communities in North Carolina will likely never have the same degree of access to active transport as people living and working in downtown Washington, D.C. But promoting active transport in rural areas seems like a great opportunity for public health workers to collaborate with city planners and other nontraditional partners to help people walk and bike more often and pinpoint barriers to active living. Let’s work together to make active transport a walk in the park.