The Perfect Enemy | Americans less active after emergence of COVID-19, study finds
April 9, 2024

Americans less active after emergence of COVID-19, study finds

Fitbit tracking and the participant survey found that lower step counts persisted, even after COVID restrictions eased.

A Vanderbilt University study estimates that Americans took 719 fewer daily steps in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic than they did before.

In the study, published yesterday in JAMA Network Open, researchers analyzed data from 5,443 All of Us (AOU) research participants with Fitbit tracking information for 10 days or more a month for at least 6 months before (January 2018 to January 2020) and after (June 2020 to December 2021) the pandemic began.

Participants also completed a survey on socioeconomic status, mental health, location, and deprivation index. Median age was 53 years, 71.7% were women, 86.0% were White, 9.3% were of other race, and 4.7% were Black.

Highest risk among poor, mentally ill

Median observed daily steps before the pandemic were 7,808, compared with 7,089 after (difference, 719 steps). A counterfactual model estimated that participants walked 575 fewer steps per day than the observed steps in 2021. The reduction was largely explained by younger age (β, −243 per 10-year decrease), residence in the Northeast (β vs other regions, −288), and higher deprivation index score (β, −477 per 0.1 increment).

Lower step counts in 2021 were also influenced by COVID-19 vaccination status (β for vaccinated vs unvaccinated, 48), depression (β, −36 per 1 score increment), and psychological stress (β, −13 per 1 score increment). There was no link between lower step counts and sex or chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or cancer.

“We found a statistically significant decline in daily step counts that persisted even after most COVID-19–related restrictions were relaxed, suggesting COVID-19 affected long-term behavioral choices,” the authors wrote.

But they said it’s unclear whether the reduction will be clinically meaningful over time. “Any meaningful difference is likely dependent on baseline activity, age, and other patient-level factors,” they wrote. “Our prior work in the AOU cohort suggests that modestly lower step counts over a long period could have a substantial contribution to long-term disease risk,” including the risk of cardiometabolic conditions and the potential to worsen health disparities associated with socioeconomic status and mental illness.