Data from MapMyFitness app place physical activity into neighborhood context

March 12, 2014

As an increasing number of Americans turn to technology in order to monitor and manage their health, researchers have discovered an innovative way to use one of these tools for evaluating public policy and improving access to physical activity.

Dr. Kelly Evenson

Dr. Kelly Evenson

In “Emerging Technologies to Promote and Evaluate Physical Activity,” Kelly R. Evenson, PhD, research professor in the department of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and six co-researchers, including lead author Jana Hirsch, MES, doctoral student at the University of Michigan, report that fitness applications could act as valuable tools for supplying data about exercise habits and locations.

Hirsch will join UNC’s Carolina Population Center this fall as a 2014-2015 postdoctoral fellow.

The research was published in the March 11 edition of Frontiers in Public Health.

Evenson and her colleagues found that MapMyFitness, a fitness app that enables individuals to track workouts online or use a global positioning system (GPS) in their phones or other wireless trackers, could allow for the collection of data on the location of physical activity as well as frequency and intensity. The data form a powerful tool for investigating patterns of physical activity across large areas and time spans. Through the app, patterns of physical activity can be examined geographically by gender to identify places where men or where women are more likely to exercise.

MapMyFitness, released in December 2006, integrates more than 400 fitness tracking devices, sensors and wearable trackers. Users can track workouts and plot the route of walks, runs and bicycle rides, among other activities. Users can save a route and share it with the MapMyFitness community or with other social media outlets. The route then can be re-used by that user, or another user, for additional workouts.

The researchers documented MapMyFitness users and characteristics of their physical activity in Winston-Salem, N.C., from 2006 through 2013, then used MapMyFitness to examine the percentage of tracked physical activity that occurred in parks and compare characteristics of users and physical activity by park use. Using these technologies for research could allow municipalities and other policymakers to better plan park services and locations and to shift services as public needs change, as well as determine which populations will be affected by policy changes.

Evenson focuses her research on the influence of the physical environment and policies on physical activity. Her research topics have included “Spatial and temporal patterns of North Carolina pedestrian and bicycle plans” (Preventing Chronic Disease) and “Using geographic information systems to compare municipal, county and commercial parks data” (Journal of Public Health Management & Practice).

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or