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Social Environment Level: Social Access

We can build it, but will they come?

Research shows that people who are socially engaged are more likely to participate in physical activity (Lindstrom et al, 2001). Whether or not an individual is socially engaged, can be determined by their involvement in three areas:

  • Social institutions (e.g., cultural and religious institutions, economic systems, and political structures)
  • Their surroundings (e.g., neighborhoods, workplaces, towns, cities, and built environments)
  • Social relationships (e.g. co-workers, peers, neighbors, connections in the community, and, of course, family and friends)

In our focus groups, participants emphasized the importance of feeling socially accepted and having a sense of belonging. Generally, those who felt accepted were more likely to be involved in physical activity. Their experiences support the findings in the Count Me In! report: “People build the feeling and reality of belonging through participation and engagement” (2006).

As a practitioner, you will have better success with physical activity initiatives if your participants feel accepted by you, your co-workers, and their peers. Providing a socially inclusive place, space, or community will make people feel welcome and encourage participation.

Often we think of social inclusion in terms of cultural groups because these groups are visibly different. However, other Two guys playing basketballgroups also need to be considered. For example, people with poor mental heath or who are struggling financially need to feel included, but their barriers to inclusion may not be overtly visible.

Feeling Accepted Supports Physical Activity

How do social accessibility and perceptions of acceptance and belonging support physical activity?

  • If individuals feel they are an accepted part of a group, they are more likely to participate.
  • Leaders, instructors, and educators who are aware of the importance of social access can ensure programs, classes, and opportunities are socially safe and appropriate.
  • People feel accepted if they can identify with others who are accessing the same services and physical activity opportunities.
  • Physical activity can help instill a sense of belonging (Bailey, M. and McLaren, S., 2005).
  • Being involved in the community can help encourage physical activity.

Factors That Limit Social Accessibility

How do social accessibility and perceptions of acceptance and belonging limit involvement in physical activity?

  • Those who are not connected to a community may not be aware of available recreational services and opportunities.
  • Low-income persons or persons living in poverty cannot afford to participate in physical activity opportunities in the community.
  • Someone who feels judged because of their culture, physical ability, social status, gender, or age is less likely to participate.
  • Someone who feels ignored, rejected, or discouraged is less likely to participate.
  • Lack of appropriate programming or services may make participants feel excluded (e.g., if no child care is available, if equipment cannot be adapted for persons with physical disabilities, etc.).
  • People who feel their neighbourhoods are unsafe are less willing to walk outside, especially at night.

I was at a community meeting . . . [The] City of Edmonton’s planning on revamping a lot of their rec centres and their parks and stuff and I went to that. And I’m glad I went because there was nobody there talking about people in wheelchairs—nobody.
Focus group participant with a disability

I guess as far as community goes, I’m just thinking of some public gyms and stuff, generally the people there are . . . young and able bodied and I don’t feel welcome there. I feel like they think I’m just taking up room and you have no help and it’s very hard to use a community-based gym.
Focus group participant with a disability

[There are lots of] programs here. But the family didn’t know about it, you know? . . . So for the kids, like the parents, that’s also the problem.
New Canadian focus group participant


Some organizations and programs target particular groups. For example, programs and services may be offered specifically for persons with physical disabilities or developmental disabilities, or for those recovering from and learning to manage a chronic condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. By targeting a particular population, they are able to provide specific support. However, participants in these specialized programs often find it difficult to make the transition into programs and opportunities in the broader community. Community-based facilities, services, and programs can be socially accessible by supporting individuals who are making the transition into their programs.

Enhancing Social Access: An Ecological Approach

Many focus group participants explained how having a sense of belonging affected their willingness to participate in physical activities. To create a socially accessible environment, use strategies that incorporate the various levels of an ecological model:
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  • The Individual
  • The Social Environment
  • The Physical Environment
  • Policies and Regulations

Strategies for enhancing social access


Quick links in Creating Change section

Individual Level

Social Environment Level
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Social Access (current page)

Physical Environment Level
Built Environment and Active Transportation
Physical Access
Natural Environment