This is one of the first studies examining personal and environmental factors associated with walking for leisure across cities in Brazil. We found that higher levels of walking for leisure were associated with lower age, higher educational status and better perceived health in all cities and with lack of nearby sidewalks in the city of Vitória and in the combined data. No associations were found with sex, marital status, BMI, perceived traffic and perceived safety to cycle/walk during day or night across all three cities. Some of the perceived environment characteristics presented correlations in the opposite directions than expected; for instance, presence of sidewalks was negatively associated with a higher likelihood of walking during leisure time.
Our findings can be interpreted in light of other research from the region. For example, Matsudo and colleagues  examined trends of physical activity during leisure time in different regions of Brazil from 2002 to 2008. Taking into account geographic region, people from the coastline were more active than the ones from the countryside and the ones from the metropolitan region. Similarly, Moura et al.  found the highest rates of leisure time physical activity in Vitória (21.2%) and the lowest in Recife (15.0%) out of all the cities from Brazil. Our data, which only looked at walking for leisure, found different rates, the lowest level of walking for leisure was 8.8% in Vitoria versus 16.0% in Recife, both coastal cities from the country. It is possible that the majority of the reported physical activity during leisure time in Vitoria and Recife in the Matsudo study corresponded to moderate and vigorous physical activity and not necessarily walking. Regarding personal characteristics, our findings are consistent with most of the national and international literature, in that, younger age, higher educational level, and better perceived health are shown to be positively associated with physical activity [8, 18, 30–32].
In addition, according to findings from all State capitals of Brazil, men tend to be more active during leisure time when compared to women [8, 31, 32]. In our study, the proportion of women that walk for leisure (15.0%) was higher than the proportion of men (14.3%); sex was not an effect modifier of the associations. Simões et al.  found that men were more active than women during leisure time in Recife, taking into account vigorous, moderate and walking during leisure, and not just walking like in this case. This could explain the differences found in this study which used the same database for Recife.
Research derived from high and low-middle income countries, shows associations between several perceived environment attributes and physical activity [16, 33, 34], and in particular with walking for leisure [35, 36]. Duncan et al.  conducted a meta-analysis of studies examining the association between perceived environment and physical activity, they found that perceived environment has a modest, yet significant association with physical activity. In our study we did not find any correlations between perceived environment attributes with the exception of a negative correlation between having sidewalks on nearby streets and walking for leisure in the city of Vitoria. The same finding was observed in the combined model but it is probably explained in its entirety by the strong association found in Victoria. Our inability to find significant associations may be due to the fact that some of the characteristics of the environment captures with the scale used are not sensible for identifying critical features related to the culture and social environment factors. Further research should explore in more detail which are the characteristics and factors of the environment that are associated with practice of physical activity in Brazil. We indicated some environment differences about population, number of automobiles and crimes among the cities, however they were not able to explain the results. In addition, self reported information in regards to features of the environment are likely to differ from those captured with objective methods. Thus, the use of geographic information systems in studies that explore the association between the environment and physical activity levels is needed.
The contradictory finding of a positive association between walking for leisure and lack of sidewalks on nearby streets, could be explained by the fact that in some cities of Brazil sidewalks may serve more as a barrier rather that a facilitator for walking. This is due to their poor quality and maintenance as well as overcrowding which limits the ability and the enjoyment of walking. This highlights the importance of developing scales that are culturally relevant and context specific for cities in Latin America, that have very different characteristics from cities found in North America and Europe. Despite the cultural adaptation of the A-News scale conducted for this study, the scale is capturing attributes of the environment that are based on findings from studies conducted in the United States, which has significant differences in terms of socio-demographic, economic, and cultural characteristics when compared to Brazil .
This study adds to the evidence base on determinants of physical activity by incorporating a range of individual and environmental measures. It is one of the few such studies from Latin America. In summary, personal factors were more strongly related to walking for leisure than perceived environmental features. Further studies should explore other environmental characteristics, including similar analyses in other cities in Brazil and Latin America. Future research should also examine these associations longitudinally.