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We’re Tracking Our Physical Activity More Than Ever. So, How Are We Doing?

Multi-Decade Study Finds Surprising Trends in All Age Groups, Especially Adolescents

Knoxville, TENN – From sophisticated smartwatches to basic fitness trackers, it seems that an increasing number of people are keeping tabs on their calories burned, steps taken, and other metrics to track physical activity throughout the day. However, a 25-year study led by Scott Conger, associate professor of Kinesiology at Boise State University and David Bassett, Jr., professor and head of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found that while activity tracking is on the rise, our activity levels have been declining.

The multi-decade study, published in the February, 2022, issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, tracked physical activity in adults, adolescents, and children by analyzing the results of sixteen peer-reviewed studies published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research studies conducted in the United States, Canada, Japan, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, and the Czech Republic were included. Using data from accelerometers and pedometers, the research showed significant declines in men and women, as well as younger people.

The studies measured populations of a certain age and sex on at least two occasions, and they used a variety of different sampling techniques to identify the participants. “The main advantage of our technique was that by using data from eight countries on multiple continents, we discovered that this was not just an isolated effect, but a widespread trend,” said Conger.

When reviewing data on step counting, the studies found an average decrease of just over 1,100 steps per day for adults from beginning to end. However, when it came to adolescents, the decrease was much more significant, at nearly 2,300 fewer steps per day. In fact, adolescents showed the steepest rate of decline over time, at 1,500 steps per day per decade.

So, what are some of the factors behind this trend? The study acknowledges that in the time span examined, an increase in smartphones, social media, and electronic entertainment may have played a significant role in a less active lifestyle. “Decreases in physical education and walking to school may have also contributed to the decline seen in teenagers,” said Bassett.

Over a much longer time span, as jobs moved from the agricultural and manufacturing sectors to office-based work, as well as the use of many labor-saving devices, adult physical activity has been on the decline.  A substantial drop in activity likely took place over a span of 150 years, starting in the mid-1800s. It should also be noted that increased leisure time did not necessarily translate to increased physical activity.

When our physical activity decreases, we may open the door to obesity, diabetes, and overall reduced fitness levels. However, when we increase our physical activity, studies have shown a dramatic positive influence on our health and well-being. While many of us understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle, we still have a way to go when it comes to promoting physical activity across all age groups, especially in younger people.

According to Bassett, “The most surprising finding was the steep rate of decline in adolescents. The study suggests that physical activity in adolescents has declined by roughly 4,000 steps per day, in the span of a single generation.”