Students’ Den: The concept of activity space and its use in health research: the “why”

In this week’s Students’ Den, Martine Shareck gives us an introduction to the concept of activity space and its potential use in health research. Enjoy reading and join the discussion! Thank you Martine!


The role of local environments or neighbourhoods in the production and maintenance of social inequalities in health is widely acknowledged. Exposure to neighbourhood physical and social environments has been linked to health behaviours such as smoking, diet and physical activity, and health outcomes including self-rated health, cardio-vascular diseases, obesity and mental health. Commonly investigated environmental exposures include area socio-economic level, quality of the physical environment and social disorder.

One topic that remains highly discussed is how to define and delineate the spatial area in which health-influencing exposures occur and should be measured. When investigating environmental influences on health, studies generally focus on exposure to a single, mainly residential, location. However, this approach tends to overlook the fact that individuals are mobile and experience other health-influencing environments such as education or work places in the course of their daily lives. Mobility patterns also vary with age and socio-economic status and this may lead to inequalities in the types of locations and conditions that individuals experience. This in turn may influence social inequalities in health.

The concept of activity space integrates individuals’ interactions with their environment and can help to delineate individual exposure areas and measure environmental exposure at locations where individuals regularly undertake activities. It also allows to account for variability in mobility and in exposure between individuals. However, this concept is scarcely used in social inequalities and health research. Further work is thus required to assess if defining exposure areas using activity spaces allows researchers to derive more valid measures of environmental exposure and to better estimate their effect on health inequalities than when measuring exposure within the residential area uniquely.

What do you think?
Do you think your residential neighbourhood is the most salient environment offering exposures that influence your health? What about the influence of your place of residence for various health behaviours such as smoking compared to healthy eating? What other environments do you spend time in that you believe influence your health? More generally, how would you define your “neighbourhood”?

Please contact me for references. An interesting conversation on place-based versus people-based measures of exposure can be found in Social Science and Medicine, 2009, vol. 69, issue 9.

Martine Shareck
Candidate au Ph.D Santé publique (promotion de la santé)
Université de Montréal
1420, Boul. Mont-Royal
C.P 6128
Montréal, Québec
Tél. 514.343.6111 (1-4565)

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