• A new study published in The Lancet Global Health found that physical activity is still down from 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic started.
  • Staying sedentary has been linked to health risks, so the study author suggests using this finding as a reminder to pay attention to how much you’re moving throughout the day.

Not surprisingly, global physical activity plummeted in early 2020, as lockdowns and work-from-home mandates took effect to reduce COVID-19 spread. But even with all those restrictions lifted, activity hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic level, according to a new study in The Lancet Global Health.

Looking at step counts as a measure of daily fitness, researchers analyzed data from a free health-wellness app called Azumo Argus, which collects step-count information from more than 200 countries. Anonymous data on 1.2 million users showed that physical activity recovered somewhat over the past two years, but is still lower than data from 2019, which shows an average rate of 5,323 steps per day for app users.

Step counts recovered the most in North America, which is just 4 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, and the least in Asia, at 30 percent below the 2019 step count average.

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The results should serve as a prompt for everyone to assess how much they’re moving, especially compared to what they were doing a few years ago, first author Geoffrey Tison, M.D., cardiologist and assistant professor of cardiology at University of California, San Francisco told Runner’s World.

“This study reminds us that as of early 2022, our overall physical activity levels have not yet returned to where they were pre-pandemic,” he said. “So, in addition to adhering to infection precautions when necessary or advised, we should also pay attention to increasing our physical activity, which is important for health.”

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The delayed uptick in activity is likely due to several factors, he added. The research indicates that step counts can vary by region and include local COVID infection patterns. In some cases, that could mean ongoing restrictions. For example, Hong Kong has only just ended its quarantine requirements for inbound travelers to the city, but still prohibits them from going to bars and restaurants for three days after arrival.

However, that doesn’t explain lower physical activity levels in much of the rest of the world, particularly those countries and regions that have been without restrictions for well over a year. One explanation, according to Tison, is that it’s possible being more sedentary has become an entrenched habit that’s proving challenging to overcome for many individuals, even those who were more active previously.

In fact, a working paper in the journal Psychiatry found that those who didn’t get much activity before COVID didn’t change their habits during the pandemic, but the physical activity dropped by 32 percent among those who had higher fitness levels pre-pandemic.

If these recovery rates continue to be stagnant—or to decline again, if a new variant causes more lockdowns—the effects on population health could be profound, Tison suggested. That could increase the severity of COVID, and may also make for a generally unhealthier populace. At an individual level, being sedentary has been linked to numerous health risks, from cardiovascular disease to depression to some cancers.

“Multiple studies have shown that physical activity is an important health determinant,” Tison said. “Therefore, prolonged and low physical activity for the population in the long run would likely mean increased levels of chronic and preventable diseases.”

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