As a researcher, I often see the world through a lens of experimentation. There are hypotheses across all facets of daily life just waiting to be validated through data or observations.
I am sharing the findings of my personal project to bring greater awareness to the importance of keeping active while going about our COVID-19 constrained lives. A few more steps each day can help mitigate the negative impact of the less obvious COVID health consequences, many symptoms of which may only surface over the longer term.
Background: The Facts
I am well set-up and adapted to working from home because I have been doing so regularly since the end of 2017 (i.e. long before COVID-19 hit).
Pre-COVID, I did leave my home office for client meetings regularly and travelled for business on average about once a month.
I also left the house almost every evening for either kid-related activities, shopping, socializing or to go to the YMCA.
I keep a regular exercise routine which has not decreased since COVID.
I continue to walk Churro (see element54 team page) twice a day the same distance pre and post COVID.
My first ever lifetime episode of back pain happened 15 years ago and I have flare-ups from time-to-time though I have also gone years without any incident. When it happens, the longest it has ever persisted is about two weeks.
But over the course of the last several weeks, I have been having back pain that has yet to go away at the time of writing this blogpost.
To validate and quantify the loss of “incidental” steps during COVID-19 with the goal of taking corrective action to prevent my back pain from becoming a chronic condition.
While many people believe they are moving less during COVID-19, how much less might this be? And what is the longer term effect of taking fewer steps each day?
Note: I know that there is also a segment of the population who has been more active than ever before because of time saved from commuting or perhaps a greater emphasis on health.
My hypothesis is that my current back pain is due to the loss of what I will label as the “incidental steps”. These would be the steps not related to planned physical activity but to daily life.
- Steps walking to and from the car when dropping off the kids at their activities
- Steps walking across the various underground parking lot mazes on my way to client meetings
- Steps walking through Costco and other stores more often vs. trying to minimize exposure to crowds and ordering more and more online
- Steps parking in an almost different time zone at the airport and then rushing my way to security
- And steps from many other occasions…
The question is how many steps are we talking about? Are others losing a similar number of incidental steps each day? Does it matter what type of activity level an individual had pre-COVID as to the impact of the loss of these incidental steps post-COVID?
These questions were on my mind as I fidgeted, trying to get comfortable at my sit/stand desk each day.
And so the research journey began…
Then I realized I could answer my own question. All I needed was to trend the data from my wearable fitness tracker and ideally, also gather some data from others who are willing to give up their information for the greater good.
As a quantitative researcher, I admit that my sample size barely qualifies as being qualitative so I encourage you to investigate for yourselves with your own data.
To adjust for seasonality, I trended the same month in 2019 against 2020 between March and August (the COVID months to-date). I also removed any outliers.
- I was surprised to see that the shape of month-to-month trend lines were fairly consistent from 2019 to 2020, with a dip in July before an uptick in August.
- My incidental steps lost are about 1,000 per day (which passes the gut check test) though maybe I expected it to be even more.
- Since not all physical activities involve steps (e.g. swimming, cycling), it was important to look at calories burned too. If I continued to consume the same amount and type of food during COVID as I had in the 2019, then very likely a surplus of over 15,000 calories over 6 months would have amounted to some degree of weight gain. But I have been adhering to a mostly whole foods plant based-diet (another experiment on biomarkers) since November 2019 and I know this has helped offset any potential weight gain.
The data below charts the step counts of two other participants who have been wearing a fitness tracker long term and who were kind enough to share their information for the purposes of this blog.
Participant A started from a high baseline due to half-marathon training and Participant B also maintains a physically active lifestyle overall. While the step count is down for both of these women, Participant B’s decrease is much lower due to her explicit effort to try to maintain the same level of activity pre and post COVID. Her data validates that her efforts have been successful. She has not experienced any weight gain nor any new aches and pains since COVID.
While I cannot prove that the lost incremental steps have contributed to my current back pain, the correlation is there. So I figure it’s worth acting on the findings to see if it will make a difference.
Below are some considerations for everyone who has started to experience more aches and pains since COVID and even if you haven’t yet (for prevention).
- Get moving more (it’s obvious but important to reiterate)!
- I added 1,000 steps to my daily step target. It means walking Churro a little further each day, which has the added benefit of redefining his waistline!
- Be more conscious of how much time you spend sitting. Try to take some calls while standing or while walking around your home.
- Take a few minutes of break at least every hour or two to stretch and walk around.
- Find a way to introduce more walking or exercise in your leisure time.
- If you’ve noticed unwanted weight gain during COVID and can’t make up enough of the lost incidental steps, then consider changing up your diet.
- Share your experiences (what’s worked/what hasn’t worked) with others!
I would love to hear about your experience if you do end up trending your own data and even if you don’t.
Please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment on the blogpost below.