Designing Supportive Environments for Chronic Disease Prevention

While the widely held belief of personal choice and responsibility remains a popular narrative in relation to population health and chronic disease prevention, it is glaringly evident that individual behaviours have limited impact when our broader social and structural environments are not conducive to good health and well-being.


We have structured (or restructured) our environments to be health-disrupting.


Our modern food environment, for example, is dominated by energy dense, nutrient poor and heavily processed convenience foods, that are contributing to a range of chronic diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Our towns and cities have been designed to support motorized transportation, instead of human-powered movement through walking or cycling, creating a dependency on cars that impacts individual physical activity rates.


The built environment, i.e., the communities or buildings where people reside or spend time, has been the focus of intense study over recent years. Neighbourhoods where people live are known to impact health in a variety of ways. Of relevance to the health of populations is the impact of neighbourhood characteristics on physical activity and eating behaviours, as two key risk factors for chronic diseases. Other environments that might help or hinder the health of populations include workplaces, schools and recreational settings. 


When viewed through the lens of the determinants of health, a health-disrupting environment means that, as individuals, we are constantly pushing a boulder of health hazards up a ramp of social and structural determinants of health. It takes an enormous amount of cognitive effort to adopt and maintain healthy behaviours such as being active or eating healthy foods, when everything around us is modelling the opposite behaviours. In essence, healthy behaviours are abnormal behaviours within our modern environment, and unhealthy behaviours are the default.


Read our snapshot on this topic here.

Flagship Project Co-Leads


Dr. Sara Kirk

Faculty of Health


Dr. Catherine Mah

Faculty of Health

Translating Research into Action


Dr. Sara Kirk received SSHERC funding to run a national cycling count pilot alongside national cycling non-profit Velo Canada Bikes. Over 1000 volunteers from across the country are counting cycling demographic information between June 1-6 to show how many bikes are out there, who's riding them and where. Global News featured the campaign and you can follow progress on the real time tracker here.
June 2, 2021


HPI hosted a capacity building session with Dr. Janet Loebach titled "Leveraging Behavioural Mapping to Capture Children's Play Behaviour and Evaluate Outdoor Playspace Design." Hosted by Dr. Daniel Rainham with over 110 Canadian and international registrants, the event was a great success. To watch a recording of the presentation, click here. 

April 28, 2021.

Dr. Loebach's book can be purchased here.

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Researchers in the Faculty of Health’s School of Health and Human Performance and Healthy Populations Institute have created the Summer of PLEY, named for their the “Physical Literacy in the Early Years” project. 

Check out the PLEY video here.

The PLEY project is featured in the 2020 Lawson Foundation Outdoor Play Strategy Final Report.

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HPI's Scientific Director leads UpLift, a provincial program to enable children and youth to thrive by boosting the environments in which they learn, grow and play.


For more information on Uplift, click here.

Virtual Panel:

HPI, in collaboration with the MacEachen Institute and Dal Alumni Open Dialogue Series, hosted Inside/Out: How Covid-19 is shifting our sense of places and spaces and what this means in a post-pandemic world. It got 6.4k views on Facebook. Listen to the recording here 



The Climate is Right for

Accelerated Cycling in Canada but Political Leadership is Needed

By Sara Kirk, HPI Scientific Director

Feb 28, 2020