Daily step counts drop following COVID-19 pandemic, study says

BYU students walk to and from class during the university’s Winter Semester. Adults between the ages of 18 and 30 had the biggest reduction in steps during and after the pandemic. (Ethan Porter)

A new study conducted by a group of researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center shows a reduction in daily steps in Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new report, conducted by Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, detailed how Americans were taking nearly 600 less steps per day than before the pandemic.

In the study, researchers compared steps taken by nearly 5,500 participants, most of whom were white women in their 50s.

To obtain the data for the report, the participants wore a digital device that tracked physical activity for at least 10 days each month.

Pre-pandemic steps were measured from Jan. 1, 2018 to Jan. 31, 2020 and post-pandemic steps were measured from June 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021, when the study ended.

The data was collected in June 2022 using an All Of Us research program controlled tier data set, which is only accessible to researchers who have completed all data access requirements.

The controlled tier data set contains demographic data fields and genomic data used to determine any underlying health conditions of the participants.

Data from the study showed that Americans living in the Northeast region had a reduction of nearly 300 daily steps compared to all other regions.

The report also showed no association in reduced step activity based on sex, obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension or cancer.

According to the discussion in the report, the findings suggest a consistent, widespread and significant decline in activity following the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Brittain and his team discovered that age also played an unexpected role in the study with every ten-year decrease being associated with a 243-step reduction per day.

The younger demographic of participants between the ages of 18 and 30 had the biggest reduction in steps both during and after the pandemic whereas participants between the ages of 50 and 60 saw nearly no reduction in their daily step limit.

Parker Carlquist, a public health major at BYU, believes a decrease in physical interactions has contributed to the lowered step counts between this demographic.

“I think social interaction has gone down in that younger demographic. I think it spurred more social media use as well as remote classes and work,” Carlquist said.

Parker Carlquist talks about how the pandemic contributed to a reduction in Americans’ daily step count. The convenience of shopping, remote work, remote school and less of a desire to get out are all potential contributors for the reduction in steps. (Ethan Porter)

In the discussion of the report, Brittain and his team shared how their research with AOU suggested that modestly lower step counts over a long period of time could impact long-term disease risk.

Carl Hanson, a BYU public health professor, believes this reduced daily step count is concerning because it is a preventative factor for major causes of death including heart disease, cancer or stroke.

The study also found a statistically significant decline in daily step counts that persisted even after the height of the pandemic, suggesting COVID-19 affected long-term behavioral choices beyond the shutdowns.

“We’re no longer dying from what we used to at the start of the century, which was all communicable diseases. It’s all related to lifestyle,” Hanson said.

Hanson believes policy decisions enacted by the government during the pandemic were a major contributor for the reduced step count.

“When we’re not able to exercise with one another it can put a damper on our activity level,” Hanson said.

Maggie Scribner, a public health student at BYU, believes the trend in reduced steps is concerning because of the mental health crisis that is plaguing Americans today.

The data highlighted how people who took the fewest steps were socioeconomically disadvantaged, under psychological stress and not vaccinated.

Many research experts suggest taking anywhere between 7,500 and 10,000 steps each day for maximum health benefits.

According to Scribner, hitting these daily step goals each day is a vital aspect of addressing mental health in America.

“There’s a lot of evidence to show exercise, physical activity and getting outside is a good treatment for a lot of these mental health concerns,” Scribner said.

According to Scribner, the best way to address this concerning trend of reduced steps each day is to be conscious in improving one’s exercise and putting more time and attention into getting outside and walking each day.

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