Creative Solutions at the Heart of Rural Communities: Interview with M. Renee Umstattd Meyer

by Christiaan Abildso, PhD


Front Porch Umstattd Meyer

My first guest is Dr. M. Renée Umstattd Meyer, Associate Professor at Baylor University, and lead author of the paper around which this series, Views from the Front Porch, is centered. Her work focuses on promoting health and health equity through an active living lens.

Predominantly rural states commonly lead the nation in unhealthy behaviors and prevalence of chronic disease, so much so that recent research has described a “rural morality penalty” of 134.7 excess deaths per 100,000 population in 2016. Not surprisingly, the prevalence of meeting physical activity guidelines is roughly 22% lower in rural than urban areas of the US, despite gains since 2008.

Dr. Umstattd Meyer and I recorded our conversation on our porches, so be sure to watch the video (below) or listen to the audio (also below).                      Front Porch Umstattd Meyer

A Passion for Rural Active Living

Renée grew up in Texas “out in the country,” and spent a lot of time playing outside in her youth. Her professional interest in rural physical activity was driven by this upbringing and the Active Living Research work cultivated by Jim Sallis over the past 20 years or so. In particular, she has done a lot of work identifying the disparities that exist in rural areas, building rural-specific evidence, and adapting interventions to fit a variety of rural contexts.

During our conversation, she spoke about the collaboration among rural active living researchers that began during round table discussions at multiple Active Living Research conferences and has continued to gather as a work group with logistical support from the CDC-funded Prevention Research Center Special Interest Project called the Physical Activity Policy Research Network (PAPRN). As PAPRN has evolved, so too has the rural work group. Early work under the PAPRN hosted by Washington University produced a systematic literature review. More recent work under PAPRN+, hosted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has focused on identifying what’s working in the most active rural places, and as this network transitions to PAPREN, co-hosted by UMass Worcester and University of Illinois at Chicago, the rural work group has identified the key role of rural libraries in promoting physical activity and rural comprehensive planning tools as key focus areas.

Watch the video:

Play Streets and Rural Settings

Dr. Umstattd Meyer also discussed her work with Dr. Keshia Pollack Porter at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on adapting Play Streets to rural areas with support from the RWJF-funded Physical Activity Research Center. We focused on how the Play Streets work is a good example of how to address the lack of rural-specific evidence and the incorrect assumptions about what “rural” means, as cited in the aforementioned paper, Rural Active Living: A Call to Action.

We focused on two specific calls in the paper:                    Front Porch Umstattd Meyer

  1. End the practice of treating rural settings as “less populated urban areas” because of the unique social, cultural, and environmental contexts of rural communities, and
  2. Recognize, understand, and plan for the diversity that exists within the continuum of rurality when researching or practicing in rural areas.

Renée spoke about the unique environmental context of rural settings – specifically that Play Streets were usually held in parks, parking lots, or open spaces because the rural towns involved couldn’t shut down a main street for a Play Street because there were so few other streets to handle vehicular detour traffic. She also highlighted the diversity of the children and partners involved in each location – partnering in predominantly Caucasian Oakland, Maryland, with a health department; working with a church in predominantly African American Warrenton, North Carolina; collaborating with the Choctaw Nation in predominantly American Indian Talihina, Oklahoma; and with the Cooperative Extension office in predominantly Latino Cameron, Texas.                                  Front Porch Umstattd Meyer

Listen to the Podcast:

Key Take Home Messages 

Play Streets were effective in getting the children active and in engaging residents socially; and, rather than a parent watching the children from their apartment window at an urban Play Street, people were driving to rural Play Streets, even from the next town, so that their children had a free place to play with other children and for social time for the adults. Another key finding is that Play Streets in rural communities were combined with or “coupled” with key community events, such as a back-to-school event or summer-feeding program, because there are real challenges to transportation and the workforce is so thin in rural areas that combining events is important to increase access for more families and for successful implementation.                                        Front Porch Umstattd Meyer

Creativity and Innovation

We ended by discussing what Renée is most hopeful about in this line of rural physical activity work. She sees a lot of strength in creative solutions and an innovative mindset at the heart of rural communities. There’s a rallying force and a drive to own this work, to add-on to what they’re already doing, to do something good for the children of their communities, and to bring together multiple generations for something positive. There’s a systems piece to it as well; by partnering with people not traditionally involved in physical activity or health promotion, they see how they can integrate physical activity into their current practice, effectively expanding the public health workforce in rural communities.

How Does Dr. Umstattd Meyer Stay Active?

She loves riding her bike on the country roads of Texas for the feeling of freedom (and possibly yodeling at the same time), walking or hiking with others to enjoy social time, and dancing with her children, regardless of the music. So, if you hear someone whizzing by you on her bike on the country roads of Texas while yodeling, be sure to yell “thanks for all your hard work, Renée!”

You Might Also Enjoy These Articles in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:

Behind the scenes with Dr. Abildso


Dr. Christiaan Abildso is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences in the West Virginia University School of Public Health in Morgantown, WV where he’s lived since 2004 with his wife and two children since. His research interests include health promotion program evaluation and social-ecological determinants of physical activity, including policy and the built environment. Dr. Abildso has multiple peer-reviewed publications about rail-trails, health impact assessment, physical activity planning, and evaluation of state-level health promotion programming. Christiaan is also active in local and state active transportation policy decisions, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and national research on physical activity in rural areas. When not in the office, you’ll usually find him riding his bike (very safely) on the beautiful trails and country roads of West Virginia.

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