Every form of physical activity takes place in a certain physical environment. These settings can either be a specific delimited place, a facility or building (e.g., a school yard, a soccer field or a gymnastic hall) or they can be traces of movement in landscapes (e.g., after a walk in a forest, a kayak trip or a bicycle trip to work), and they can also be combinations of these two categories.
If they had been mapped, we would have been able to see a vibrant development of artefacts connected with physical activity in the landscapes during the 20th century in Sweden. Just think of all the sport facilities, playgrounds, parks, walking paths in the mountains and exercise trails in the neighbourhood forests that were created during that period. In line with this, there was also a state-driven planning for the protection of landscapes of national value for outdoor life and recreation (Civildepartementet 1971; Kungl. Maj:t 1972). The climax in this respect occurred during the last decades of the Swedish welfare state, sometime during the 1970-80s. However, when we look at this period more closely it also becomes apparent that all forms of physical activity were not facilitated. Support for active transport by means of an infrastructure for cycling was not part of the dominant planning and investment agenda (Emanuel 2012a,b). Beginning with the 1990s, a neoliberal era followed, and with it a waning of interest in this respect by both the state and the municipalities was noted. Physical activity then became an issue that was up to the individual to solve on his/her own. Interestingly, this change in perspectives was followed by the establishment of a large number of private gyms. Consequences of the changed societal climate with respect to facilities for sport organisations are presented in a recent report from the Swedish Sport Federation (Riksidrottsförbundet 2012).
Given the potentially important effect of physical activity on public health (cf. Pedersen & Saltin 2006), the health-geographical dimension of physical activity is of clear relevance in many fields of study. In our times this dimension is also of importance for understanding, e.g. the effects of urbanisation, as well as ethnic and social segregation in urban areas (cf. Svastisalee et al. 2012). Furthermore, there is a great need to know more about circumstances in which levels of health-enhancing physical activity (cf. Haskell et al., 2007) can be encompassed within the population and at the same time contribute to a sustainable development (Schantz 2002a,b; Schantz & Lundvall 2014).
Considering all the above, it can be seen as a curious truth that scientific descriptions and analyses of physical activity and conditions for it in a spatial context are a very recent phenomenon. This is reason enough to start this chapter by placing the current interest in the physical activity–environment relationship in a historical context. Afterwards, some principal aspects of the relationship between physical activity, the environment and health will be illuminated. This will be followed by a listing of examples of different paths taken so far, particularly in Sweden, to analyse these relationships.