Physical activity behavior before, during, and after COVID-19 restrictions: Longitudinal smartphone-tracking study of adults in the United Kingdom

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Abstract

Background: The COVID-19 pandemic led to the implementation of worldwide restrictive measures to reduce social contact and viral spread. These measures have been reported to have a negative effect on physical activity (PA). Studies of PA during the pandemic have primarily used self-reported data. The single academic study that used tracked data did not report on demographics. Objective: This study aimed to explore patterns of smartphone-tracked activity before, during, and immediately after lockdown in the United Kingdom, and examine differences by sociodemographic characteristics and prior levels of PA. Methods: Tracked longitudinal weekly minutes of PA were captured using the BetterPoints smartphone app between January and June 2020. Data were plotted by week, demographics, and activity levels at baseline. Nonparametric tests of difference were used to assess mean and median weekly minutes of activity at significant points before and during the lockdown, and as the lockdown was eased. Changes over time by demographics (age, gender, Index of Multiple Deprivation, baseline activity levels) were examined using generalized estimating equations (GEEs). Results: There were 5395 users with a mean age of 41 years (SD 12) and 61% (n=3274) were female. At baseline, 26% (n=1422) of users were inactive, 23% (n=1240) were fairly active, and 51% (n=2733) were active. There was a relatively even spread across deprivation deciles (31% [n=1693] in the least deprived deciles and 23% in the most [n=1261]). We found significant changes in PA from the week before the first case of COVID-19 was announced (baseline) to the week that social distancing restrictions were relaxed (Friedman test: χ22=2331, P 65 years appeared to remain more active throughout and increased their activity levels as soon as lockdown was eased. Levels of PA among those classed as active at baseline showed a larger drop compared with those considered to be fairly active or inactive. Socioeconomic group and gender did not appear to be associated with changes in PA. Conclusions: Our tracked PA data suggests a significant drop in PA during the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 lockdown. Significant differences by age group and prior PA levels suggests that the government’s response to COVID-19 needs to be sensitive to these individual differences and the government should react accordingly. Specifically, it should consider the impact on younger age groups, encourage everyone to increase their PA, and not assume that people will recover prior levels of PA on their own.

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McCarthy, H., Potts, H. W. W., & Fisher, A. (2021). Physical activity behavior before, during, and after COVID-19 restrictions: Longitudinal smartphone-tracking study of adults in the United Kingdom. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(2). https://doi.org/10.2196/23701

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