Physical activity and the social determinants of health

An active life does not depend only on individual factors. Economic and social conditions also influence the health of people and communities.


Starting and sticking with an active life does not depend only on individual factors, like your attitude towards exercise. Your personal efforts to adopt healthy behaviours are made easier or harder by forces within your community. The economic and social conditions that influence the health of people and communities are called the social determinants of health.

In our society, physical activity is treated as a nice extra if you’re able to fit it in, while being sedentary is treated as the norm:

  • The elevator is in a central location, while staircases are in the far corner of the building.
  • Roads are prioritized over sidewalks and bike paths.
  • Many social activities involve sitting: from going to the movies, to grabbing a coffee with friends.
  • For many of us, our jobs are structured in ways that make us sit for most of the day!

Your income, options, the neighborhood in which you live, are all critical factors that influence whether you’re able to be active. For example, low-income neighborhoods have fewer free resources and less well-maintained facilities for physical activity as compared to wealthy neighbourhoods.

Communities like Montreal and Concordia can make it easier for you to be active. For example, a community can:

Your social environment is as important as the physical space in helping you to be active.

  • Does your community culture value being active?
  • Do your work and school environments help or hinder active choices?
  • Can members of your community meet people to exercise with?
  • Do you have access to practical support (e.g. child-care, advice, encouragement)?

We need both individual and society-level strategies to help people achieve their optimal health potential. For more information on the social, political, and economic root causes of health and how to address them, see Social Determinants of Health: the Canadian Facts and Health, in other words.

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