The COVID-19 pandemic stopped people in their tracks, reducing their physical activity. And daily "step counts" still haven't reached previous numbers, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco examined worldwide trends in physical activity by measuring step counts in the two years following the start of the pandemic. Step counts were distinctly lower early in the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels and remained lower for the first two years of the global crisis, the study team found.
"As the global pandemic persists, understanding its long-term ramifications on physical activity is crucial," said cardiologist and study co-author Dr. Geoffrey Tison. Exercise guidelines for Americans call for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, such as walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.
The researchers used anonymous, individual data from January 2019 through mid-February 2020 from a health and wellness smartphone app. The data included more than 140 million daily step count measurements provided by more than 1.25 million users from more than 200 countries and territories.
The research team found a rate of 5,323 steps a day during the 2019 calendar year. The average step count from November 2021 to February 2022 was lower for all continents compared with the same 90-day time period in 2019-2020. That same November to February time period for 2020-2021 was also lower for all continents compared with the pre-pandemic period.
The best recovery period of gaining step counts worldwide was in May to November 2021, with 4,997 steps a day, but this was still 10% lower than the same time frame in 2019. Step counts recovered the most in North America, where they remained 4% lower, and Europe, where they remained 14% lower. They recovered the least in South America and Asia.
"Patterns of step count recovery appear to reflect regional differences in the timing of COVID-19 infection surges and might also correlate with changes in regional social distancing policies and vaccination availability," Tison said in a university news release. He's an assistant professor in the UCSF Division of Cardiology.
"These insights might help to inform public health and regional policy decisions to balance necessary efforts of mitigating infection while also maintaining access to physical activity and other important determinants of health," Tison added.
Results suggested a gradual return to pre-pandemic physical activity levels worldwide. The study also found that the step count low point in January 2022 during a COVID-19 surge was less severe than the low point in January 2021.
The findings were published Aug. 31 in The Lancet Global Health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on step counts.
SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, Aug. 31, 2022