Are People Actually Sheltering-in-Place? Fitbit Looks at Steps to Find Out

Around the world, people are being asked to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Fitbit wanted to understand how mobility in major cities has changed as more mandates are put in place. Because habitual activities like commuting, shopping, exercising, and day-to-day lifestyle activities rack up steps, we used anonymous, aggregated steps data gathered from Fitbit devices as the metric for quantifying changes in mobility.

Based on this data, we found that as cities issued state of emergency declarations, and again as shelter-in-place was ordered, mobility had a sharp decline, suggesting that Fitbit users generally responded to these policies quickly.

Who Has Been Impacted Most by Stay-At-Home Policies?

There have been reports of young people not taking social distancing seriously, but is it true overall? We looked at how social distancing and stay-at-home mandates affected our users. To do that, our data scientists developed the Change in Mobility Index to measure how daily steps of users in a particular location and age group compared to the expected step count from the same group, based on data from the same time last year. 

Our data shows that in major cities in the US and around the world, stay-at-home orders had the greatest impact on activity for users aged 18 to 29, with their steps down between 16 percent to 23 percent. In contrast, users 65 and over saw the lowest impact on their mobility, down approximately four percent to 10 percent. We suspect this drop in activity for younger users is likely due to them having higher activity levels before social distancing.

But timing is also important; in 88 percent of US cities, users aged 18 to 29 reduced their activity at least one day before other age groups. For example, in San Francisco, we saw a steep decline on March 14 for the younger age group, two days ahead of the City’s shelter-in-place announcement. Beyond that, all other age groups changed their behavior at the same time as policies were introduced in the cities that we studied.

SF versus NYC: How These Cities Have Reacted to Shelter-In-Place Orders

San Francisco issued its shelter-in-place order on March 16. However, you can see mobility start to drop earlier—around the time that many large companies around the Bay Area began asking their employees to work from home, resulting in less movement because of fewer people commuting.  

Looking at New York City, the chart below shows activity levels starting to decline in early March, even prior to any policy announcements, but in line with the timing of school closings. After the stay-at-home mandate, however, activity levels saw a much sharper decline than in San Francisco. We believe this may be due to the fact that New York has the densest population in the country, with 28,000 residents per square mile versus San Francisco, the next densest city which has 17,000, making it harder to stay active while practicing social distancing. 

A Look At Mobility Around the World

The animations below show the impact on mobility in major cities around the world. As you move from one week to the next, the data shows that the populations of cities that implemented shelter-in-place policies started taking fewer steps on average than they normally would during this time period. You can see this as cities move from the top to the bottom left corner of the chart. 

In the US-only chart on the left, we can see that cities such as Omaha, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Denver, and Atlanta did not change behavior as drastically in the week ending March 29 as other cities, despite all but Atlanta having stay-at-home orders in place.

Green denotes cities with stay-at-home policies.
(Shelter-in-place data via New York Times)

In addition, the graph below underscores how strict policies dramatically reduced mobility in cities like Madrid, Milan, and Paris. While other cities with stay-at-home orders like London and Dublin saw less of a reaction.

Overall, it’s encouraging to see that many people around the world are doing their part to help slow the spread of COVID-19—and that social distancing and stay-at-home mandates are being taken seriously by Fitbit users of all ages. 

Interested in learning more about how social distancing has impacted the lifestyles of Fitbit users around the world? Check out our other data stories here and here.  

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