Making Every Step Count: Minute-by-Minute Characterization of Step Counts Augments Remote Activity Monitoring in People With Multiple Sclerosis

Front Neurol. 2022 May 23:13:860008. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2022.860008. eCollection 2022.


Background: Ambulatory disability is common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Remote monitoring using average daily step count (STEPS) can assess physical activity (activity) and disability in MS. STEPS correlates with conventional metrics such as the expanded disability status scale (Expanded Disability Status Scale; EDSS), Timed-25 Foot walk (T25FW) and timed up and go (TUG). However, while STEPS as a summative measure characterizes the number of steps taken over a day, it does not reflect variability and intensity of activity.

Objectives: Novel analytical methods were developed to describe how individuals spends time in various activity levels (e.g., continuous low versus short bouts of high) and the proportion of time spent at each activity level.

Methods: 94 people with MS spanning the range of ambulatory impairment (unaffected to requiring bilateral assistance) were recruited into FITriMS study and asked to wear a Fitbit continuously for 1-year. Parametric distributions were fit to minute-by-minute step data. Adjusted R2 values for regressions between distributional fit parameters and STEPS with EDSS, TUG, T25FW and the patient-reported 12-item MS Walking scale (MSWS-12) were calculated over the first 4-weeks, adjusting for sex, age and disease duration.

Results: Distributional fits determined that the best statistically-valid model across all subjects was a 3-compartment Gaussian Mixture Model (GMM) that characterizes the step behavior within 3 levels of activity: high, moderate and low. The correlation of GMM parameters for baseline step count measures with clinical assessments was improved when compared with STEPS (adjusted R2 values GMM vs. STEPS: TUG: 0.536 vs. 0.419, T25FW: 0.489 vs. 0.402, MSWS-12: 0.383 vs. 0.378, EDSS: 0.557 vs. 0.465). The GMM correlated more strongly (Kruskal-Wallis: p = 0.0001) than STEPS and gave further information not included in STEPS.

Conclusions: Individuals' step distributions follow a 3-compartment GMM that better correlates with clinic-based performance measures compared with STEPS. These data support the existence of high-moderate-low levels of activity. GMM provides an interpretable framework to better understand the association between different levels of activity and clinical metrics and allows further analysis of walking behavior that takes step distribution and proportion of time at three levels of intensity into account.

Keywords: Fitbit; accelerometry; activity level; minute-by-minute steps; multiple sclerosis; remote monitoring.