An international team of researchers conducted a study that demonstrated the effects of measures to combat Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) on the running behavior of people in the United States.
The team found that after a national emergency was declared on March 13, 2020 and measures were put in place to contain the pandemic, the average number and distance of walks decreased dramatically.
When restrictions eased after mid-May 2020, the average distance traveled for practical purposes such as shopping (purposeful walking) was still significantly shorter than before the pandemic. Leisure or leisure walking was less affected and recovered, sometimes even exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
However, Esteban Moro of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and colleagues said the study found differences in the impact of running patterns on different socio-demographic groups.
The COVID-19 response has had a greater impact on the walking behavior of people living in low-income areas and in areas with high public transport usage.
“The experiences of COVID-19 are not shared equally in our communities and neighborhoods, nor are its effects the same,” says the team. “Providing equal opportunities to support walking could be key to opening up our society and the economy.”
A pre-print version of the paper is available on the medRxiv * server while the article is being peer-reviewed.
Decrease in walking behavior during the pandemic. A) Geolocation of recreational and commercial hikes in the Boston area before (left) and after (right) the introduction of COVID-19 responses. B) Average (black) daily average number of walks per day and user in the 10 metropolitan areas compared to those for commercial and leisure walks. The vertical (red) dashed line indicates March 13, 2020, the declaration of a national emergency. C) As in B), but for the entire distance covered. D) Relative change in the distance the city travels between closure (February 15, 2020 to March 15, 2020) and subsequent closure (June 2020).
COVID-19 control measures have disrupted active life on a large scale
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have put in place measures to restrict mobility and encourage citizens to stay at home to reduce transmission and prevent health services from becoming overwhelmed.
“While such restrictions are key to containing the spread of the virus, they have disrupted our normal and active lives on a large scale,” said Moro and colleagues.
In the United States, walking is the most common form of physical activity and consistently the most commonly reported physical activity in adults who meet public health recommendations for physical activity.
“There is no doubt that mobility restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have affected walking behavior, but the magnitude and spatio-temporal aspects of these changes have not yet been thoroughly established,” the researchers say.
In addition, little is known about the different effects of COVID-19 control measures on population subgroups, who are likely to experience different lockdown experiences depending on access to green spaces and urbanity, the team adds.
“Understanding how COVID-19 responses have affected the walking behavior of the population and their various subgroups is critical information in developing strategies to prevent the potential health and societal effects of falling walking levels,” write the explorers.
Temporal patterns of walking behavior. The panels show the average number of walks per user for each hour and day of the week and for recreational and utility purposes. The upper field corresponds to the temporal pattern before the COVID-19 response measures and the lower field after the COVID-19 response measures.
What did the study include?
The team integrated mobile device mobility data and area-level data to analyze the walking patterns of 1.62 million anonymous people in ten metropolitan areas between mid-February 2020 (before lockdown) and late June 2020 after lockdown restrictions were relaxed.
“Cell phones are a powerful tool that can be used to study population dynamics on a large scale. It reveals human movement patterns with greater temporal and spatial granularity, while at the same time ensuring anonymity and privacy for users,” the researchers said.
The areas covered included New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.
Fields A) to D) show the distribution of walks by hour and length (in meters) for the walks before (upper fields) and after (lower fields) COVID-19 measures as well as for weekdays and weekends. The dashed line corresponds to 750 meters.
Walking activity decreased dramatically in all areas
Following the declaration of a national emergency on March 13 and the introduction of COVID-19 control measures, the average number of walks decreased by around 75% and the average distance traveled decreased by around 55% in all metropolitan areas studied.
The average distance covered during expedient walking decreased by about 72%, and the number of walks taken around 7:00 am and 3:00 pm greatly decreased.
The results suggest that these effects on walking are mainly due to changes in work, shopping, and dining activities.
Even after restrictions were eased in mid-May, the average distance traveled during purposeful walking was still 39% less than before the pandemic. The decline in recreational hiking was less pronounced, recovering in some populations to levels above pre-pandemic levels.
Inequalities between socio-demographic groups were observed
People who live in high-income areas have increased their recreational hiking by a significant 48%, possibly due to high-income people having more free time and opportunities to exercise during free time, suggest Moro and colleagues.
“The substitution of recreational hiking for utilitarianism was absent in low-income groups, and as a result, COVID-19 responses have had a strong impact on their walking behavior,” they write.
The researchers also found that walking decreased sharply in areas where public transport usage is normally high compared to areas where usage is normally low. This is likely due to a reduction in walking distance to access transportation, the team says.
“In the United States, public transport use tends to be higher in low-income communities because, according to our findings, walking behavior has decreased the most.”
Inexpensive interventions could eliminate inequalities
Researchers outlined a range of low-cost interventions that could potentially improve utility and leisure walking behavior and address some of the inequalities observed during the study.
Examples of this are creating pop-up walkways and widening sidewalks to provide more opportunities for walking. The team also suggests reducing speed limits in urban areas and adjusting the timing of traffic lights to suit pedestrians.
The researchers suggest that such interventions, if implemented over the long term, could help improve the health and wellbeing of the population, for example by reducing air and noise pollution, reducing the risk of road accidents and reducing the demand for health services.
“We therefore have a unique opportunity to improve our urban environments to encourage and facilitate walking and physical activity, especially for our most vulnerable communities,” they write.
“The novel methods used in this work and our results can help us understand the diffusion, diffusion and impact of walking within and between cities, countries and subgroups, and to design communities, policies and measures that enable better walking promote in a COVID. 19 safe world, ”concludes the team.
* Important NOTE
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be considered conclusive, guide clinical practice / health-related behavior, or be treated as established information.