Editor’s note: Sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. OUR seven part guide will help you adopt a healthy routine, supported by experts.
Americans took fewer steps during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they still haven’t regained their mojo, according to a new study.
“On average, people are taking about 600 fewer steps a day than they were before the pandemic started,” said study author Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center at Nashville.
“For me, the main message is really a public health message – to raise awareness that Covid-19 seems to have had a lasting impact on people’s behavioral choices about activity,” he said.
The study used data from the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program, which focuses on identifying ways to develop individualized health care. Many of the program’s 6,000 participants wore activity trackers for at least 10 hours a day for several years and gave researchers access to their electronic health records.
Brittain and his colleagues have already used the data from this, publishing a study in October 2022 which found that overweight people could reduce their risk of obesity by 64% by increasing their steps taken from around 6,000 to 11,000 per day.
In the new study, published Monday in JAMA Network Open, researchers compared the measurements taken by nearly 5,500 people who wore the program’s activity trackers. Most were white women, with an average age of 53.
Step counts collected between January 1, 2018 and January 31, 2020 were considered pre-Covid. Steps taken after this date until the end of 2021, when the study ended, were considered post-Covid.
The results showed no difference in identified step activity based on gender, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases or conditions such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, or cancer.
People who took the fewest steps were socioeconomically disadvantaged, psychologically stressed and unvaccinated, the study found.
Age also made a difference, but in unexpected ways: People over 60 were unaffected by the pandemic, the study found — they continued to progress.
Curiously, it was young people between the ages of 18 and 30 whose step counts were hit the hardest, Brittain said. “In fact, we found that every decrease in age of 10 years was associated with a reduction of 243 steps per day.”
“If this persists over time, it could certainly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other conditions strongly linked to physical inactivity,” Brittian said. “However, it is too early to know if this trend will last.”
Why would younger generations lose steps while older people don’t?
“I think it’s hard to interpret because it’s only 600 steps, which some people would get just on their way to work and throughout their day,” said Dr Andrew Freeman, director of Cardiovascular Prevention and Wellness at National Jewish Health, a Denver hospital, which was not involved in the research. “I think the question is who is most likely to work from home?”
Younger generations make up the majority of workers in technology, software and other professions able to work from anywhere, “while older people may have fewer of those jobs,” Freeman said.
Whatever the reason, the study’s data shows that people weren’t moving around as much during the pandemic as before. It’s worrisome, Freeman added.
“If this trend continues, we should really be aware that if you’re going to work from home, use a standing desk, treadmill or bike desk,” he said, adding that managers of remote employees should “insisting on people taking periodic breaks for people to exercise, which is also proven to improve mental clarity and sharpness,” he said.
Healthcare professionals should always talk to their patients about activity levels, but “the impact of Covid-19 could make these kinds of messages all the more important to discuss with patients,” Brittain said.