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Big data maps our sedentary globe

US scientists have published a global study which used smartphone data to reveal how active people are across the globe.

The Stanford University researchers analysed 68 million days' worth of smartphone data across more than 100 countries. It showed the global average number of daily steps taken by an individual is around 5,000. Hong Kong tops the chart, clocking up an average of 6,880 steps a day, and Indonesia shuffles in at the bottom with just 3,513. Here in the UK, we average 5444, putting us at fairly respectable 4th place.

Stanford data country by steps showing China most active

Image courtesy by Stanford University

The findings published in the journal Nature, provide important insights for improving health. Interestingly, the average number of steps for a country appears to be a less important indicator for obesity levels than the disparity between the least and most active people in an country - what the authors call "activity inequality".

"These results reveal how much of a population is activity-rich, and how much of a population is activity-poor," said Delp, one of the main researchers. "In regions with high activity inequality there are many people who are activity poor, and activity inequality is a strong predictor of health outcomes.”

By comparing countries by activity patterns and analysing those with unequal activity, certain health dynamics emerge. Individuals in the five countries with the greatest activity inequality are nearly 200 per cent more likely to be obese than individuals from the five countries with the lowest activity difference.

The UK has a relatively high inequality measure, perhaps explaining its higher than average obesity rates.

world activity inequality chart

Image courtesy by Stanford University

The Stanford team says the findings help explain global patterns of obesity and give new ideas for tackling it. The US scientists called for making urban design improvements to a city's walkability by creating an environment that is safe and enjoyable to walk.

This idea is supported by data from 69 U.S. cities which showed higher walkability figures are associated with lower activity inequality. Higher walkability is associated with significantly more daily steps across all age, gender, and body-mass-index categories.

Interestingly, the Stanford researchers found that women recorded comparatively less activity than men in places which are less walkable but more active than their male counterparts in places are suitable for walking.  As such, poorly designed urban environments appear to take a greater toll on women's health than men's.

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