Using accelerometers to measure physical activity in large-scale epidemiological studies: issues and challenges
- Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Epidemiology, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts USA
- Correspondence to Dr I-Min Lee, Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Epidemiology, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, 900 Commonwealth Ave, 3rd Floor Boston, MA, USA;
- Accepted 8 November 2013
- Published Online First 2 December 2013
Background The current guidelines for aerobic activity require that adults carry out ≥150 min/week of moderate-intensity physical activity, with a large body of epidemiological evidence showing this level of activity to decrease the incidence of many chronic diseases. Less is known about whether light-intensity activities also have such benefits, and whether sedentary behaviour is an independent predictor of increased risks of these chronic diseases, as imprecise assessments of these behaviours and cross-sectional study designs have limited knowledge to date.
Methods Recent technological advances in assessment methods have made the use of movement sensors, such as the accelerometer, feasible for use in longitudinal, large-scale epidemiological studies. Several such studies are collecting sensor-assessed, objective measures of physical activity with the aim of relating these to the development of clinical endpoints. This is a relatively new area of research; thus, in this article, we use the Women's Health Study (WHS) as a case study to illustrate the challenges related to data collection, data processing and analyses of the vast amount of data collected.
Results The WHS plans to collect 7 days of accelerometer-assessed physical activity and sedentary behaviour in ∼18 000 women aged ≥62 years. Several logistical challenges exist in collecting data; nonetheless, as of 31 August 2013, 11 590 women have already provided some data. In addition, the WHS experience on data reduction and data analyses can help inform other similar large-scale epidemiological studies.
Conclusions Important data on the health effects of light-intensity activity and sedentary behaviour will emerge from large-scale epidemiological studies collecting objective assessments of these behaviours.