Objective Self-reports of physical activity (PA) have been the mainstay of measurement in most non-communicable disease (NCD) surveillance systems. To these, other measures are added to summate to a comprehensive PA surveillance system. Recently, some national NCD surveillance systems have started using accelerometers as a measure of PA. The purpose of this paper was specifically to appraise the suitability and role of accelerometers for population-level PA surveillance.
Methods A thorough literature search was conducted to examine aspects of the generalisability, reliability, validity, comprehensiveness and between-study comparability of accelerometer estimates, and to gauge the simplicity, cost-effectiveness, adaptability and sustainability of their use in NCD surveillance.
Conclusions Accelerometer data collected in PA surveillance systems may not provide estimates that are generalisable to the target population. Accelerometer-based estimates have adequate reliability for PA surveillance, but there are still several issues associated with their validity. Accelerometer-based prevalence estimates are largely dependent on the investigators’ choice of intensity cut-off points. Maintaining standardised accelerometer data collections in long-term PA surveillance systems is difficult, which may cause discontinuity in time-trend data. The use of accelerometers does not necessarily produce useful between-study and international comparisons due to lack of standardisation of data collection and processing methods. To conclude, it appears that accelerometers still have limitations regarding generalisability, validity, comprehensiveness, simplicity, affordability, adaptability, between-study comparability and sustainability. Therefore, given the current evidence, it seems that the widespread adoption of accelerometers specifically for large-scale PA surveillance systems may be premature.
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