Efforts to improve the nation’s activity levels must move away from placing the onus on the individual, Sport England has warned, as the body’s authoritative annual study showed the pandemic has hit hardest those already struggling the most to exercise.
The Active Lives study, based on a representative poll of 175,000 people, found that only 45% of people with disabilities were active between May of 2020 and May 2021. The corresponding figure amongst Asian people (excluding those of Chinese origin) was 48% while only 52% of black people were active. All these numbers had declined on the previous year.
Sport England’s executive director of insight, Lisa O’Keefe, who led the study, said annual declines were not surprising given the shuttering of the leisure industry for months at a time, and fears over transmission of Covid-19. But drops in activity have only reinforced existing inequalities. The study found that the least affluent socio-economic groups in English society are now less active now than when the survey began in 2016, the only economic group to have shown a decline, while the youngest demographic captured in the adult survey – those aged between 16 and 34 – have seen a drop in activity of 5% in the past five years.
“Of course sport and activity impacts your physical wellbeing,” O’Keefe said. “But this report [shows a] hit on happiness levels, the rise in anxiety too. We know sport and physical activity play a role in those, but generally we know that every pound invested in community sport generates £4 for the economy. In terms of our recovery [from the pandemic] sport and physical activity really needs to be at the heart of that for so many different reasons and we really need to focus where the impact has been greatest.”
Sport England is a “non-departmental public body” funded by the DCMS and the National Lottery. This year it launched a 10-year strategy, Uniting the Movement, which took as its guiding principle: “People with the most to gain from being active have been the least able to take part.”
O’Keefe said the results of the Active Lives survey reinforced the need for structural change. “We know here that for too long we have focussed our attention on the individual: what is it the individual needs to change to be more active?” she said. “What we’re saying is that this needs to be a collective effort, that we really need to work together to get to a place where we create the right environment where people have the best opportunity to be regularly active. It’s a bit of a glib answer, but we really need everybody.”
Top line figures from the study found that just over six in 10 adults (27.8 million) achieved 150+ minutes of activity a week, with activity defined as including walking at moderate intensity for 10 minutes. This was a drop of 700,000 (-1.9%) on last year’s figures. Meanwhile, 27.5% of people (12.5m) did less than an average of 30 minutes a week, an increase of 1m people on the year before.
Active Lives also found that the number of people using gyms and swimming pools had collapsed, with total gym users in May 2021 less than half that recorded in May 2019. Swimming meanwhile recorded only 700,000 users compared to 4.8m in 2019. Walking figures were a rare bright spot, with 3.6m more people reporting walking for leisure in May 2021 than 2019.
Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England, added: “There is no silver bullet for a more active nation. Together with government we have provided nearly £1bn of funding to the sport and physical activity sector during coronavirus and we will build on that. But it’s not just about funding, we are investing human as well as financial resources. These results build on what we know and while the challenge is large, we are well placed to take it on with our strategy Uniting the Movement.”