ISU researchers will use Ames trails as laboratory to study how urban trees impact exercise

AMES, Iowa -- Are you more likely to jog on an urban trail if it has trees? Chris Seeger wants to know. The Iowa State University Extension landscape architect is leading a study in Ames to find out if vegetation contributes to the activity levels of city dwellers.

The built environment is one factor in physical activity levels that can help address the obesity epidemic, said Seeger, an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Design.

Community design impacts physical activity

"Many factors have contributed to the global obesity epidemic and many factors can contribute to a solution," Seeger said. "Clearly, how communities are designed and the ways residents interact there have an impact on residents' physical activity levels."

Seeger's study will focus on understanding the effects the urban forest has on its users.

The 18-month study is funded by a $48,102 grant awarded through a competitive program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council. It will begin in October.

The research team includes Susan Erickson, lecturer in landscape architecture; Gary Hightshoe, professor of landscape architecture; Gregory Welk, assistant professor of health and human performance; and Jeff Benson, an Ames city planner.

Runners, walkers sought

They are looking for study participants in Ames. (See participants sought.)

The researchers will ask volunteers to strap on monitors for four weeks when they run or walk for exercise. A global positioning system (GPS) device on the wrist will record the person's exercise route location and time of day. An accelerometer around the waist will track the person's magnitude of movement or amount of activity (including arm movements and the number of steps taken). Participants will be asked to do this for one week in fall, winter, spring and summer.

The route data from the GPS unit will be imported into a geographic information system (GIS), where it can be plotted to a map of Ames. Each participant's route and level of activity will be mapped, then combined with recreation trail and infrastructure GIS data layers of Ames.

The researchers then will create a vegetation data layer by digitizing high-resolution aerial photos of the community and using visual verfication. The vegetation GIS data layer will be classified according to species type, relative size, stand maturity and other characteristics.

Vegetation's influence on route selections

When all data have been assembled and mapped, the researchers will use spatial-analysis techniques to correlate physical activity, route preference and vegetation presence.

"We'll look at how close the participant lives to the selected trail, the proximity of trails not selected and the amount of each type of vegetation on the selected trail," Seeger said. "We'll also analyze characteristics of the trails most commonly used and of those not used."

Participants also will be asked to take a visual preference survey to rank photos of trails in different seasons and with varying amounts of vegetation.

The findings may be of interest to those involved in community design and urban planning, Seeger said.

"This study should contribute meaningful information to the current dialogue about user preferences for features in the outdoor environment," Seeger said. "We think it's an important input into changing the way communities are designed with health and physical activity in mind."