Motion sensor use for physical activity data: Methodological considerations

Margaret McCarthy, Margaret Grey

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Physical inactivity continues to be amajor risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and only one half of adults in the United States meet physical activity (PA) goals. PA data are often collected for surveillance or for measuring change after an intervention. One of the challenges in PA research is quantifying exactly how much and what type of PA is taking place-especially because self-report instruments have inconsistent validity. Objective: The purpose is to review the elements to consider when collecting PA data via motion sensors, including the difference between PA and exercise, type of data to collect, choosing the device, length of time to monitor PA, instructions to the participants, and interpretation of the data. Methods: The current literature on motion sensor research was reviewed and synthesized to summarize relevant considerations when using a motion sensor to collect PA data. Results: Exercise is a division of PA that is structured, planned, and repetitive. Pedometer data include steps taken and calculated distance and energy expenditure. Accelerometer data include activity counts and intensity. The device chosen depends on desired data, cost, validity, and ease of use. Reactivity to the device may influence the duration of data collection. Instructions to participantsmay vary depending on the purpose of the study. Experts suggest pedometer data be reported as steps-because that is the direct output-and distance traveled and energy expenditure are estimated values. Accelerometer count data may be analyzed to provide information on time spent in moderate or vigorous activity. Discussion: Thoughtful decision making about PA data collection using motion sensor devices is needed to advance nursing science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)320-327
Number of pages8
JournalNursing research
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2015


  • Accelerometer
  • Pedometer
  • Physical activity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing


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