Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Conference on ‘Childhood nutrition and obesity: current status and future challenges’

Symposium 2: Data collection

Measuring physical activity in children and adolescents for dietary surveys: practicalities, problems and pitfalls

The Nutrition Society Irish Section Meeting, the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. 19–21 June 2013.

Jennifer S. Mindella1a2 c1, Ngaire Coombsa1a2 and Emmanuel Stamatakisa1a2a3

a1 Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK

a2 Physical Activity Research Group, Domain of Population Health, University College London, London, UK

a3 Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia


Physical inactivity is an important risk factor for many chronic diseases and contributes to obesity and poor mental well-being. The present paper describes the main advantages and disadvantages, practical problems, suggested uses, and future developments regarding self-reported and objective data collection in the context of dietary surveys. In dietary surveys, physical activity is measured primarily to estimate energy expenditure. Energy expenditure surveillance is important for tracking changes over time, particularly given the debates over the role of the relative importance of energy intake and expenditure changes in the aetiology of obesity. It is also important to assess the extent of underreporting of dietary intake in these surveys. Physical activity data collected should include details on the frequency, duration and relative intensity of activity for each activity type that contributes considerably to overall activity and energy expenditure. Problems of validity and reliability, associated with inaccurate assessment, recall bias, and social desirability bias, are well-known; children under 10 years cannot report their activities accurately. However, despite such limitations, questionnaires are still the dominant method of physical activity assessment in dietary surveys due to their low cost and relatively low participant burden. Objective, time-stamped measures that monitor heart rate and/or movement can provide more comprehensive, quantitative assessment of physical activity but at greater cost and participant burden. Although overcoming many limitations of questionnaires, objective measures also have drawbacks, including technical, practical and interpretational issues.

(Online publication January 15 2014)

Key Words:

  • Physical activity;
  • Measurement;
  • Children;
  • Survey methodology


c1 Corresponding author: Dr J. S. Mindell, fax +44 (0) 44 7813 0242, email