UCSF tracks steps through app to measure coronavirus impact on worldwide physical activity

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- If you were active and used to exercising, you already know how much your life changed when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. But now, researchers at UCSF have captured a snapshot of how quickly the world changed. They did it, by tapping into a popular, smartphone-based fitness app that can track user's steps.

"Knowing that smartphones can capture step count, we asked the question, would these restrictions, these social distancing measures that occur by region, have an impact on physical activity as estimated by step counts," explains Dr. Geoffrey Tison, M.D.

The app is called ARGUS. Dr.Tison and his colleagues examined user data from countries around the world beginning in the month of March, when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic and a wide variety of social distancing orders followed.

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"So between March and April, there was a 27% decrease in mean steps worldwide, so basically within a month, the worldwide physical activity dropped by almost a third," says Dr. Tison.

A remarkable drop, but with major differences. They say Italy, which declared a nationwide lockdown, saw activity cut nearly in half in that time period. While Sweden, which shunned tougher measures, saw a maximum drop of barely 7% suggesting that few people were voluntarily sheltering in place. Countries ranging from Europe to the U.S. to Asia took anywhere from five days to nearly a month to see a median drop of 15%, with the U.S. falling about in the middle.

Dr. Tison says measurement of people's activity has also varied, as cities and countries adjust.

"You might be able to look at step count data like this and access how people's adherence to social distancing is changing. But in addition, this might also reflect differences in ways people are figuring out how to stay active or be a little more active in the setting of these orders," he explains.

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Adjusting to the new COVID-19 reality a step or many steps at a time.

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