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Why Safe Spaces are Key

To exercise regularly, adolescents need spaces that are suitable for physical activity. These spaces must also be safe. Teens who think their neighborhoods are unsafe can get less exercise than teens who think their neighborhoods are safe.1 Safe spaces for exercise may include sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

Adolescents’ access to spaces that support physical activity varies. Teens who live in lower income households, have parents with lower levels of education (e.g., no college degree), and live in rural areas are less likely to have access to supportive spaces than other teens such as those who live in higher income households.2 Access also is more limited for teens who are Hispanic or black, and being overweight or obese is likely an outcome of lack of access to spaces that support physical activity.2 The Safe Places to Play initiative of the U.S. Soccer Foundation is helping to increase access to physical activity spaces in low income communities by awarding grants to underserved communities and helping them turn empty lots or abandoned spaces into soccer fields to promote play.3

In rural areas, adolescents can face further barriers to physical activity such as fewer community resources, greater distances between locations, and more transportation challenges.4 In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made recommendations to increase physical activity in rural areas. For youth, CDC recommended that schools be required to include physical education; CDC also recommended that children and adolescents be active for at least half of their time in physical education.4 Communities can take other steps to promote physical activity among adolescents. They can improve access to safe recreational facilities; they also can build or enhance facilities (e.g., trails and sidewalks).5

Physical Activity for Youth with Disabilities or Chronic Conditions

All adolescents need physical activity. However, physical activity is not “one size fits all.” It can and should be modified to meet the needs of each individual.6 

Adolescents with disabilities are more likely to be inactive than their peers without disabilities.6 Healthcare professionals can encourage regular physical activity for adolescents with disabilities.7 Programs and activities can be adapted to improve access for youth with disabilities, which in turn makes it easier for all youth to get the physical activity they need. For example, the after-school program Girls on the Run adapted running activities to include girls in wheelchairs and those with other disabilities.8

Parents and caregivers also can support physical activity for youth with disabilities. They can promote physical activity among adolescents by modeling active behaviors.9 They also can plan family time for physical activities that include their adolescent(s).9 The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability recommends several family activities that are often accessible.10 These activities include community races, activities at a local or state park, and activities in the pool.10

One in four adolescents has a chronic health condition, such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma.11 Regular physical activity is important for youth with these conditions since it can help to improve physical wellness.12 It also can reduce the risk of advancing current chronic conditions and the odds of developing other chronic conditions.12


1 Lenhart, C.M, Wiemken, A., Hanlon, A., Perkett, M., & Patterson, F. (2017). Perceived neighborhood safety related to physical activity but not recreational screen-based sedentary behavior in adolescents. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1-9. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4756-z.
2 Waston, K., Harris, C., Carlson, S., Dorn, J., & Fulton, J. (2016). Disparities in adolescents’ residence in neighborhoods supportive of physical activity — United States, 2011–2012. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6523a2.htm
3 US Soccer Foundation. (2018). Safe places to play. Retrieved from https://ussoccerfoundation.org/programs/safe-places-to-play
4 President’s Council on Sports Fitness & Nutrition. (2017). Physical activity initiative. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-initiative/index.html
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Physical activity. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/healthtopics/physactivity.htm
6 Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2019). Physical activity. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/physical-activity
7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Physical activity is for everybody. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/physical-activity-disabilities/index.html
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Activity for all children. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/features/fitness-disabilities-kids/index.html
9 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Youth physical activity: The role of families. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/toolkit/factsheet_pa_guidelines_families.pdf
10 Bonner K. 10 Ways to get your family fitness in. Retrieved from https://www.nchpad.org/1610/6638/10~Ways~To~Get~Your~Family~Fitness~In
11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Healthy schools. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/healthy-schools.htm
12 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. (2018). 2018 physical activity guidelines advisory committee scientific report. Retrieved from https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/report/pdf/pag_advisory_committee_report.pdf
Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on July 30, 2019