Community Engagement in a Multilevel Rural Trail Intervention: Interview with Alan Beck

by Christiaan Abildso, PhD


In the seventh, and final, episode of Views from the Front Porch, my guest is Dr. Alan Beck, Project Coordinator at the Prevention Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He coordinates Heartland Moves a project funded by the National Cancer Institute that aims to increase physical activity (PA) in rural populations in southeast Missouri.

Alan grew up in rural southern Illinois. His “career as an exercise professional began in an intensive care unit in Balad, Iraq” through an interest in how his body adapted during recovery from injuries sustained during combat. His interest evolved into better understanding the initiation of exercise and the prevention of chronic disease. He has always loved doing resistance exercise, and more recently has embraced riding his mountain bike more, especially while pulling his two sons in a bike trailer.

Heartland Moves

We talked about the ways the Heartland Moves intervention has answered the Rural Active Living Call to Action paper led by Dr. Renée Umstattd Meyer published by JPHMP in 2016 in three specific ways: (1) by using an ecological model such as Sallis and colleagues to guide the establishment of a rural-specific evidence base; (2) using objective measures of PA and sedentary behaviors in rural research; and (3) using qualitative studies to better identify and characterize the unique influential variables in rural environments.

The WashU PRC has been involved in 40 trail building projects, and in their pilot work that saw a major disparity between awareness and use of the trails. Far fewer residents were using the trails than were aware of them. With that understanding, they are working at multiple levels in collaboration with a local coordinator in rural Missouri to encourage use of trails through the use of walking groups, a citizen science mobile app (Our Voice developed at Stanford) to document community features that encourage or discourage walking, and text messaging with general and community-specific messaging.

They are measuring PA using accelerometers and GPS units to track total and trail-specific activity. Alan described the benefits and lessons learned in using the devices, including device charging and storage logistics, and data download, cleaning, and privacy protection lessons. Importantly, the intervention was influenced by qualitative data they collected prior to the intervention with key informants, trail users, and non-users. As part of the intervention, they originally intended to create a single Community Advisory Board. Based on the interviews, however, they decided to create a coalition in each community to get stronger local buy-in and a deeper understanding of the local community. They also identified the variations in resources by community, especially in parks and recreation, and also in the strength of local coalitions in smaller communities that tend to be more cross-cutting and collaborative.

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Overcoming Barriers

Alan and his colleagues have also noticed some unique differences in motives between trail users and non-users. Trail users identify stronger motivation from social activity; non-users were more motivated by personal reasons if active. Also, trail users focused on enjoyment of nature, time with others and mental health; non-users express more interest in convenience of the activity.

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As someone that grew up in a rural area, Alan described a common trepidation / difficulty rural residents may have with opening up with urban folks. As we discussed this, Dr. Beck provided some very useful lessons to overcome this barrier: 1) create a relationship first, and 2) hire someone from “the same area code” to work with the community. He acknowledged these are not always easy to accomplish during a project but, once created, they are the foundation for much more meaningful and tailored work. This echoes a previous porch chat I had with Dr. Cindy Perry. She and her colleagues, much like Ross Brownson and the WashU PRC, have been able to string together funding over time to develop meaningful, impactful relationships that are yielding critical improvements in infrastructure and PA in rural places. I am so impressed with Alan’s continuation of this ongoing work in rural Missouri!

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Christiaan Abildso

Christiaan Abildso, PhD

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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