Research Study Abstract

Using accelerometers to measure physical activity in large-scale epidemiological studies: issues and challenges

  • Published on Feb. 2014

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.


  • I-Min Lee
  • Eric J Shiroma


  • Division of Preventive Medicine, Department of Epidemiology, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts USA


British Journal of Sports Medicine


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