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Rural–Urban Differences in Objective and Subjective Measures of Physical Activity: Findings From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2006
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  • Alternative Title:
    Prev Chronic Dis
  • Description:

    Lower levels of physical activity among rural relative to urban residents have been suggested as an important contributor to rural–urban health disparity; however, empirical evidence is sparse.


    We examined rural–urban differences in 4 objective physical activity measures (2 intensity thresholds by 2 bout lengths) and 4 subjective measures (total, leisure, household, and transportation) in a nationally representative sample of participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2006. The sample comprised 5,056 adults aged 20 to 75 years. Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) codes were matched with NHANES subjects to identify urban status and 2 types of rural status. Rural–urban and within–rural differences in physical activity were estimated without and with controls for demographic and socioeconomic variables.


    Rural residents were less active than urban residents in high-intensity long bout (2,020 counts per minute threshold and 10 miniutes or longer bout length) accelerometer-measured physical activity (42.5 ± 6.2 min/wk vs 55.9 ± 2.8 min/wk) but the difference disappeared with a lower-intensity threshold (760 counts per minute). Rural residents reported more total physical activity than urban residents (438.3 ± 35.3min/wk vs 371.2 ± 12.5 min/wk), with differences primarily attributable to household physical activity. Within rural areas, micropolitan residents were less active than residents in smaller rural areas. Controlling for other variables reduced the size of the differences.


    The direction and significance of rural–urban difference in physical activity varied by the method of physical activity measurement, likely related to rural residents spending more time in low-intensity household physical activity but less time in high-intensity physical activity. Micropolitan residents were substantially less active than residents in smaller rural areas, indicating that physical activity did not vary unidirectionally with degree of urbanization.

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