How have worldwide physical activity trends changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?

In a recent study published in The Lancet, researchers assessed the trends in physical activity worldwide since the onset of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Study: Worldwide physical activity trends since COVID-19 onset. Image Credit: lzf/Shutterstock
Study: Worldwide physical activity trends since COVID-19 onset. Image Credit: lzf/Shutterstock

Background

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread mortality and morbidity over the globe. Public health interventions that limit severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission could result in unintended consequences that affect long-term health outcomes. Hence, it is essential to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on physical activity, which is an important marker of health, to guide policy making. 

About the study

In the present study, researchers examined the trends in physical activity worldwide regarding step count estimates since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team employed deidentified individual-level data from 1 January 2019 to 17 February 2022 from a health-wellness smartphone app called Azumio Argus. The number of daily steps was estimated using smartphone accelerometers and Android or Apple algorithms for counting steps. User location was determined via the smartphone IP address.

The team estimated the mean steps before the pandemic determined in every region using data between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2019. Furthermore, the number of COVID-19 cases in every region was obtained. Finally, the team estimated the differences between mean step counts for the periods assessed.     

Results

The study results showed that 1,40,424,429 daily step counts were obtained from 12,55,811 unique users from over 200 countries and regions. Almost 92% and 8% of the measurements obtained were from iOS and Android smartphones. The team noted that physical activity was estimated at 5323 steps before the pandemic.

However, 90 days before the end of the study period between November 2021 and February 2022, the mean step count declined significantly for all the continents compared to the period between November 2019 and February 2020. Moreover, the 90-day period between November 2020 and February 2021 also had a significantly lower mean step count for all the continents than before the pandemic.

Notably, the period between May and November 2021 displayed the highest recovery in step count since the onset of the pandemic, with almost 4997 steps recorded per day, while the step count was still 10% less than before the pandemic. In comparison to 2019, the highest step count recovery recorded between May and November 2021 was in North America, followed by Europe, South America, and Asia. Particularly, in the USA, the team noted that the step count recovered to 97% between May and November 2019.

Furthermore, the low point of the step counts in all the continents was less severe during the surge in COVID-19 cases in January 2022 than in January 2021. Compared to the mid-pandemic period in 2020-21, the mean step counts noted in the 90 days before the study period were considerably higher in Europe and North America and lower in Asia. Moreover, there were no notable differences between Africa, South America, and Oceania.           

Conclusion

The study findings showed that mean step counts across the globe have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels since the beginning of COVID-19 infections. Step counts in North America and Europe have shown the most recovery, but they remained lower than those before the pandemic. The researchers believe that the speed of recovery of the mean step count could reflect the availability and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines across different regions.

Journal reference:
Bhavana Kunkalikar

Written by

Bhavana Kunkalikar

Bhavana Kunkalikar is a medical writer based in Goa, India. Her academic background is in Pharmaceutical sciences and she holds a Bachelor's degree in Pharmacy. Her educational background allowed her to foster an interest in anatomical and physiological sciences. Her college project work based on ‘The manifestations and causes of sickle cell anemia’ formed the stepping stone to a life-long fascination with human pathophysiology.

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