Study finds socioeconomic disparities in physical activity during COVID-19 pandemic

A study conducted by Assistant Professor KYAN Akira (Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University) and Professor TAKAKURA Minoru (Faculty of Medicine, Ryukyus University) identified socio-economic disparities in the physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first study in the world to reveal that the degree of disparity differs for each domain of physical activity of daily life (work, leisure and transport). Amid concerns about widening economic inequalities, the findings of this study underscore the need for continued monitoring to determine the true state of health disparities stemming from economic circumstances.

These findings were reported in the journal Public health April 20, 2022.

main points

  • This was the first study in the world to investigate socio-economic inequalities related to physical activity in different areas of daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Disparities based on income and level of education were found for physical activity (related to work, leisure and transport) and sedentary behaviors. In these results, there was a large disparity for recreational physical activity with lower levels of this activity among those with low income/low education (Figure 1-a, 2-a).
  • In contrast to physical activity levels in other areas of daily life, people with little education spend more time on work-related physical activity (Figure 1-b, Figure 2-b). This can be interpreted negatively from a public health perspective, as previous research has indicated that high levels of occupational physical activity may actually increase the risk of conditions such as heart disease.
  • Ongoing investigation is needed to assess medium- and long-term impacts on people’s health.

Research fund

It is known that sufficient levels of physical activity can prevent multiple chronic diseases (including mental illnesses) and reduce the risk of death. Ideally, people should be able to equally benefit from the benefits of physical activity.

However, it has long been pointed out that there are disparities linked to people’s socioeconomic status (for example, their income and level of education) when it comes to healthy behaviors such as physical activity. This is called health disparities. Namely, a disproportionate number of low-income and/or poorly educated people are in poor health.

Due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic, specific industries have been hit hard economically, such as the tourism industry and the restaurant industry. There are concerns in the public health field that these circumstances exacerbate health disparities.

It has been reported that the actual levels of physical activity and exercise awareness have improved in Japan compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, based on detailed data collected from surveys conducted by the government on the Internet and pedometer applications for smartphones.

However, this information may not reflect the reality of people in vulnerable socio-economic situations due to the nature of the survey methods used. In other words, it may be impossible to understand the circumstances faced by people who need help.

Research methodology

This study used detailed population breakdown and regional data collected through the National Sports and Lifestyle Survey, which is a cross-sectional national survey conducted by the Sasakawa Sports Foundation.

The researchers used this data to study disparities in physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the particularities of this study is that it uses the Slope Index of Inequality (SII) and the Relative Index of Inequality (RII); these take into account differences in population ratio for each indicator of socio-economic status (in this case, income and level of education)


Journal reference:

Kyan, A & Takakura, M (2022) Socio-economic inequalities in physical activity among Japanese adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health.

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