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From sophisticated smartwatches to basic fitness trackers, electronic devices are helping an increasing number of people keep tabs on their calories burned, steps taken, and other daily physical activity metrics to track physical activity.

David Bassett

However, a 25-year study finds that while activity tracking is on the rise, our activity levels have been declining.

The multidecade study was led by David Bassett Jr., professor and head of the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, and Scott Conger, associate professor of kinesiology at Boise State University. It was published in this month’s issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Researchers tracked physical activity in adults, adolescents, and children by analyzing the results of 16 peer-reviewed studies conducted before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in locations including the United States, Canada, Japan, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, and the Czech Republic. Using data from accelerometers and pedometers, the research showed significant declines for both men and women, with an especially pronounced decline for 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 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,” said Bassett.

The study shows an average decrease of just over 1,100 steps per day for adults in the covered time span. 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, losing 1,500 steps a day per decade.

So what are some of the factors behind this trend? The study acknowledges that 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.

Basset set the finds within the decline of physical activity over a much longer time span as jobs have moved from the agricultural and manufacturing sectors to office-based work and the use of labor-saving devices has grown. 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.


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