Has the Pandemic Made the World Less Active?

We’re not quite done with COVID-19 – roughly 400 people are still dying daily from it in the U.S. But some of our leaders are saying the pandemic is over. Well, we’ll leave that debate to the poli-med pundits. However it’s worth noting that it looks like we’re not on track to go back to being as active as we were when the pandemic started two years ago. A global study of data from more than a million smartphone users suggests that global step counts were running a little more than ten percent lower earlier this year than they were in 2019.

The difference is not huge, but it’s significant. The pandemic seems to have made us a little less physically active all around the world.

An Observational Convenience Sample

Worldwide Physical Activity in the Two Years Since COVID-19These data come from 1,255,811 users of the free Azumio Argus smartphone app from every continent but Antarctica. Geoffrey Tison and colleagues used anonymized data from January 1, 2019, to February 17, 2022. They calculated locations from IP addresses and wound up with more than 140 million daily step counts from more than 200 countries and territories. Most of the data (92 percent) came from iPhones.

In sum, they found that worldwide step counts have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Europe and North America seem to have recovered the most. But even there, the levels of activity by this measurement remain significantly below 2019.

Consistent Findings

This observation is no outlier. Kathrin Wunsch, Korbinian Kienberger, and Claudia Niessner previously published a systematic review and meta-analysis. Their data was not as recent, but across 57 studies in 14 countries, most analyses found a reduction in physical activity. Only five studies found an increase in activity, and 14 of them showed mixed results. Noteworthy is the fact that all of the studies with device-based measurement showed a drop. Reports of increases came solely from studies that relied on self-reports.

Real Implications for Health

These drops in physical activity have real implications for both physical and mental health. Physical activity is an essential tool for preventing and controlling chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. For good mental health, especially during the pandemic, physical activity can be quite important, too.

So we can’t undo two years of living with a pandemic. Revenge travel did not wash it away. A return to office work won’t erase it. But we can move ahead and find new patterns for active and healthy lives, perhaps a little wiser for what we’ve seen.

Click here for the study by Tison et al, here for the review by Wunsch et al, and here for more on the relationship between physical activity and mental health in the pandemic.

Laziness, painting by Ramon Casas / WikiArt

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September 27, 2022