Image source: Fitbit

Study reveals we tend to overestimate our physical activity levels

An international study led by the University of Southern California has revealed how physically active people are versus how active they perceive themselves to be. And it seems there is a big difference in perception and reality. Americans mistakingly think they are as active as Europeans, while older people consider themselves to be as active as younger people.

For the study, researchers strapped fitness trackers to 540 individuals from the US, 254 from England and 748 from the Netherlands. Over a seven day period, men and women reported their physical activity on a five point scale: inactive, mildly active, moderately active, active and very active.

Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

The study showed only minor differences in self-reported data across countries. Actual results, however, revealed a much different picture. Participants from the Netherlands and England were, in reality, much more active than individuals from the US. In fact, the percentage of Americans in the inactive category was almost twice as large as compared to their European counterparts.

Rather modestly, the Dutch and English rated themselves towards towards the middle with few rating themselves at extreme ends of the scale. Interestingly, despite on the whole being much less active, Americans rated themselves as either very active or inactive.

“It means people in different countries or at different age groups can have vastly different interpretations of the same survey questions,” says Arie Kapteyn, the study’s lead author.

Researchers believe that the differences in activity levels were partly to do with culture and environment. For example, while Americans typically rely on their cars to get around, the Dutch frequently cycle to work and for daily errands.

there is a big difference between what we say and wdo when it comes to fitness - Study reveals we tend to overestimate our physical activity levels
Image source: Fitbit

A similar picture emerged when comparing older people versus younger people. A comparison of fitness tracker data by age group revealed that physical activity drops at older ages in all three countries, particularly amongst older Americans. Some 42% of the Dutch and 32% of English participants were rated as inactive compared to 60% across the pond.

But again there was a distortion between perception and reality, with older people rating themselves as more active than they really are. Disparity was greatest among participants who reported that they were either “very active” or “very inactive.”

“Individuals in different age groups simply have different standards of what it means to be physically active,” added Kapteyn.

“They adjust their standards based on their circumstances, including their age.”

The study also highlights the danger in using self-reported data in health studies. Because physical activity is so central to a healthy life, accurate measurements are important to science.

The results can be found in the April 11 edition of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

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