Mapping the historical development of physical activity and health research: A structured literature review and citation network analysis

Andrea Ramirez Varela, Michael Pratt, Jenine Harris, Jesse Lecy, Deborah Salvo, Ross C. Brownson, Pedro C. Hallal

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Little has been published about the historical development of scientific evidence in the physical activity (PA) and public health research field. The study aimed to examine the evolution of knowledge in this field. A structured literature review using formal citation network analysis methods was conducted in June-2016. Using a list of influential PA publications identified by domain experts, a snowball sampling technique was used to build a compact citation network of 141 publications that represents the backbone of the field. Articles were coded by study type and research team characteristics, then analyzed by visualizing the citation network and identifying research clusters to trace the evolution of the field. The field started in the 1950s, with a health sciences focus and strong North American and European leadership. Health outcome studies appeared most frequently in the network and policy and interventions least. Critical articles on objective measurement and public policy have influenced the progress from an emphasis on health outcomes research at early stages in the field to the more recent emerging built environment and global monitoring foci. There is only modest cross-citation across types of study. To our knowledge, this paper is the first to systematically describe the development of research on PA and public health. The key publications include fundamental ideas that remain citable over time, but notable research and dissemination gaps exist and should be addressed. Increasing collaboration and communication between study areas, encouraging female researchers, and increasing studies on interventions, evaluation of interventions and policy are recommended.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)466-472
Number of pages7
JournalPreventive Medicine
StatePublished - Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • History
  • Network analysis
  • Physical activity
  • Research
  • Review

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'Mapping the historical development of physical activity and health research: A structured literature review and citation network analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this