Developing a Physical Activity Ontology to Support the Interoperability of Physical Activity Data

J Med Internet Res. 2019 Apr 23;21(4):e12776. doi: 10.2196/12776.


Background: Physical activity data provides important information on disease onset, progression, and treatment outcomes. Although analyzing physical activity data in conjunction with other clinical and microbiological data will lead to new insights crucial for improving human health, it has been hampered partly because of the large variations in the way the data are collected and presented.

Objective: The aim of this study was to develop a Physical Activity Ontology (PACO) to support structuring and standardizing heterogeneous descriptions of physical activities.

Methods: We prepared a corpus of 1140 unique sentences collected from various physical activity questionnaires and scales as well as existing standardized terminologies and ontologies. We extracted concepts relevant to physical activity from the corpus using a natural language processing toolkit called Multipurpose Text Processing Tool. The target concepts were formalized into an ontology using Protégé (version 4). Evaluation of PACO was performed to ensure logical and structural consistency as well as adherence to the best practice principles of building an ontology. A use case application of PACO was demonstrated by structuring and standardizing 36 exercise habit statements and then automatically classifying them to a defined class of either sufficiently active or insufficiently active using FaCT++, an ontology reasoner available in Protégé.

Results: PACO was constructed using 268 unique concepts extracted from the questionnaires and assessment scales. PACO contains 225 classes including 9 defined classes, 20 object properties, 1 data property, and 23 instances (excluding 36 exercise statements). The maximum depth of classes is 4, and the maximum number of siblings is 38. The evaluations with ontology auditing tools confirmed that PACO is structurally and logically consistent and satisfies the majority of the best practice rules of ontology authoring. We showed in a small sample of 36 exercise habit statements that we could formally represent them using PACO concepts and object properties. The formal representation was used to infer a patient activity status category of sufficiently active or insufficiently active using the FaCT++ reasoner.

Conclusions: As a first step toward standardizing and structuring heterogeneous descriptions of physical activities for integrative data analyses, PACO was constructed based on the concepts collected from physical activity questionnaires and assessment scales. PACO was evaluated to be structurally consistent and compliant to ontology authoring principles. PACO was also demonstrated to be potentially useful in standardizing heterogeneous physical activity descriptions and classifying them into clinically meaningful categories that reflect adequacy of exercise.

Keywords: exercise; health information interoperability; leisure activities; terminology as topic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Natural Language Processing*