Physical Activity Assessment


Current evidence convincingly indicates that physical activity reduces the risk of colon and breast cancer. Physical activity may also reduce risk of prostate cancer. Scientists are also evaluating potential relationships between physical activity and other cancers.

The consistent findings for colon and breast cancer have led researchers to recommend that individuals increase physical activity to reduce the risk of cancer. However, it is not yet possible to provide a specific activity prescription for the population.

To better understand the relationship between physical activity and cancer and to make specific activity prescriptions, it is necessary to be able to accurately assess levels and types of activity. This poses a challenge because existing assessment methods are crude and imprecise. In particular, better methods are needed to:

  • assess physical activity from transportation, occupation, and household tasks in addition to that from recreation;
  • assess physical activity over longer time periods, including across the lifetime;
  • assess more completely the frequency, duration, and intensity of physical activity;
  • improve the validity and reliability of physical activity assessment instruments; and
  • incorporate cognitive aspects into the design of assessment instruments.

The Epidemiology and Genomics Research Program (EGRP) supports the collection of physical activity data in existing and planned surveys. In doing so, EGRP is attempting to develop more complete assessments of individuals' physical activity based on information derived from multiple contexts, including transportation, occupation, and recreation.

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Physical Activity Resources

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Selected Projects

Examples of collaborative present and past projects related to physical activity assessment which staff are involved with include:

  • Supporting the use of activity monitors to collect objective physical activity data in large surveys, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). These monitors, which record motion activity as people wear them over several days, circumvent the cognitive and cultural challenges inherent in collecting physical activity data by questionnaire.

Significant past initiatives EGRP has been involved with include:

  • Supported inclusion of a variety of questions related to physical activity and sedentary behavior in the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Cancer Control Supplement and the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS)External Web Site Policy. These added questions complement the NHIS/CHIS core physical activity questions concerning leisure and transportation walking. The data from these surveys are publicly available and provide a rich resource for exploring the demographic and health related correlates of physical activity in multiple domains.
  • Genes, Environment and Health Initiative (GEI)
    The GEI was established in 2006 to lay a foundation for investigating the interaction between environmental and genetic underpinnings of human disease. The trans-NIH Initiative consisted of two major components: identifying genetic susceptibility factors for diseases that have a high public health impact and developing new technologies for accurate measurement of environmental exposures and lifestyle factors. This link provides more information about selected publications and studies associated with the exposure biology portion of GEI.

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Funding Opportunities

NCI-sponsored Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) related to physical activity assessment include:

  • Diet and Physical Activity Assessment Methodology (Clinical Trial Not Allowed) - expires September 8, 2021
  • Physical Activity and Weight Control Interventions Among Cancer Survivors: Effects on Biomarkers of Prognosis and Survival (Clinical Trial Optional) - expires September 8, 2021, unless reissued

EGRP joins with other NCI Divisions, Offices, and Centers and other Institutes and Centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund grant applications submitted in response to FOAs. View the full list of EGRP FOAs.

EGRP also encourages investigator-initiated grant applications on topics related to diet and cancer risk and outcomes.

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Public Resources

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Key Publications

This list provides links to selected scientific publications by EGRP staff that may be of interest to researchers interested in physical activity assessment for population-based studies.

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Workshops and Webinars

Previous Events

  • International Conference on Ambulatory Monitoring of Physical Activity and MovementExternal Web Site Policy (June 2017)
  • Research Strategies for Nutritional and Physical Activity Epidemiology and Cancer Prevention Workshop (June 2016)
  • Simplifying and Scaling Physical Activity Measurement and Analysis: The SPADES System (May 2016)
  • Measurement of Active and Sedentary Behaviors: Closing the Gaps in Self-Report Methods Webinar and Think TankExternal Web Site Policy (July 2010)
    Learn more about this event

    A webinar supported by NCI, the National Institutes of Health's Office of Disease Prevention, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research. This webinar provided an overview of physical activity as a multidimensional health behavior, an in-depth review of methods to measure active and sedentary behaviors by self-report, and an exploration of important issues when assessing physical activity in diverse populations. The webinar was followed by a Think Tank where measurement experts discussed approaches to closing the gaps in self-report methods assessing active and sedentary behaviors.

    The following journal supplements were published to summarize and build upon the webinar and Think Tank:

    Objective measurement of physical activity: best practices and future directions

    Objective measurement of physical activity: best practices and future directionsExternal Web Site Policy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 January; 44(suppl 1):S1-S89.

    This journal supplement summarizes and builds upon a workshop which convened researchers from diverse sectors and organizations to critically review the state-of-the-science. The supplement discusses current technologies for objective physical activity monitoring, provides recommendations for the use of these technologies, and explores future directions in the development of new tools and approaches. It presents best practices for using physical activity monitors in population-based research, explores modeling of physical activity outcomes from wearable monitors, and discusses statistical considerations in the analysis of accelerometry-based activity monitor data. It also examines monitor equivalency issues and discusses current use and best practices for accelerometry with particular populations -- children, older adults, and adults with functional limitations.

    Measurement of active and sedentary behaviors: closing the gaps in self-report methods

    Measurement of active and sedentary behaviors: closing the gaps in self-report methodsExternal Web Site Policy. J Phys Act Health. 2012 January;9(suppl):S1-S92.

    This journal supplement summarizes a workshop and webinar that explored the major challenges and opportunities for the use of self-report methods to measure active and sedentary behaviors. Additionally, it contains an overview of the history and evolution of self-report instruments, a commentary on the role of practitioners in instrument development, and a commentary on self-report measurement in low- and middle-income countries. The supplement is intended as a reference for navigating the considerations encountered when selecting an approach for self-report assessment or when deciding how to develop a new instrument.

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For general questions about physical activity assessment, EGRP contacts include:

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