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The impact of coronavirus on activity levels revealed

Our Active Lives Adult Survey shows the impact of the first eight months of coronavirus on activity levels, which activities grew in popularity and which audiences struggled.

The majority of physically active adults in England managed to maintain their habits despite the challenges of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, according to our latest Active Lives Adult Survey, with just 710,000 fewer active adults between November 2019 and November 2020 compared to the same period 12 months previously.   

However, the first eight months of coronavirus restrictions, as well as the storms that had a huge impact on outdoor activity in early 2020, also led to a worrying increase in the number of people who were inactive - doing less than 30 minutes of activity a week or nothing at all. 

Our report, which we’ve published today, shows that while the restrictions associated with the pandemic had an unprecedented impact on activity levels, thanks in part to the support of the sport and physical activity sector, many people were able to adapt and find ways to return to activity as restrictions eased.   

Not all groups or demographics were affected equally though, with women, young people aged 16-24, over 75s, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, and those from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds most negatively impacted beyond the initial lockdown period. 

Today’s findings also show how people's relationship with sport and physical activity changed across the various different phases of coronavirus restrictions, who returned to activity once restrictions eased, and who didn’t.  

The information available will be beneficial to the sport and physical activity sector as restrictions continue to ease this summer and as the weather improves and consumer confidence increases due to the vaccine rollout.  

A chart from our Active Lives Adult Report showing the number of people who are inactive, fairly active and active

Click on the link below to read our report – if embedded links in the PDF do not function correctly in Google Chrome, please use another browser, or open the report in a dedicated PDF viewer: 

Active Lives Adult Survey November 2019-20 Report

The scale of disruption  

The pandemic led to unprecedented decreases in activity levels during the initial restrictions and, as a result, the latest annual results show the following changes compared to 12 months earlier: 

  • 710,000 (-1.9%) fewer active adults meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of taking part in 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, taking the total number of active adults to 27.9 million (61.4% of the population) 
  • 1.2m (+2.6%) more inactive adults taking part in less than an average of 30 minutes a week, taking the total number of inactive adults in England to 12.3m (27.1% of the population).   

This, however, masks the scale of the changes seen during the impacted months.  

Activity levels were hit hardest during the initial phase of the pandemic (the national lockdown between mid-March and mid-May) and the proportion of the population classed as active dropped by 7.1% – or by just over 3m fewer active adults – compared to the 12 months before.  

During the second phase, as restrictions were eased, activity levels were still down compared to the previous 12 months, but the reductions were smaller, with 4.4%/2.0m fewer active adults across mid-May to mid-July and 3.1%/1.4m fewer active adults across mid-July to mid-September. 

In the third phase of the pandemic, as new restrictions were imposed but before the full impact of the new national lockdown in November was felt, activity levels decreased by 1.8% and there were 800,000 fewer active adults. 

There were patterns in the way that different groups and demographics responded to the easing of restrictions, however, with women less likely to return to activity than men. See below for more information on how the impact of the pandemic varied across different demographic groups.  

a graphic showing the timeline of coronavirus restrictions

How people reacted  

Restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus had a profound impact on the types of activities – and the form they could take – that were available between mid-March and mid-November.  

Whilst the restrictions severely limited the ability to take part in some activities such as walking for travel (-4.2m over the 12 months in those reporting taking part at least twice in the last 28 days), swimming (-1.8m) and team sports (-940k), we can also see the significant attempts of the population to find alternatives through increases in activities like walking for leisure (+1.3m), running (+470k) and cycling for leisure and sport (+1.2m). 

Although at home exercise was encouraged, and the numbers of people working out at home increased significantly, it was not enough to offset the lost gym environment (-1.9m) and drop in those taking part in team sports (-940k). 

How we’ve helped 

Throughout the pandemic our twin aims have been to support the sport and physical activity sector to keep going, and to keep the nation active by directly influencing consumers through our campaigns.  

Join the Movement, our £3.5m National Lottery-funded and award-winning campaign launched two weeks after the first Covid-19 restrictions to help people to stay active during the pandemic, and has played a key role in helping to motivate and provide guidance on how to find free, accessible activities. 

The campaign reached 37 million people between April and June and 45% of adults say they recognise the campaign, almost half (47%) of whom increased their physical activity level or effort as a result of seeing it. 

We’ve also supported the sector financially with over £230m of funding, including our Community Emergency Fund and various Return to Play funding options that are helping keep sports clubs and activity providers going through this very difficult period. 

Our investment also includes our £20m Tackling Inequalities Fund that’s designed to help specific groups disproportionately impacted by the restrictions.  

During the 2020-21 financial year we released more than £414m of grant funding, a 60% increase on the previous year, in 13,170 individual grant payments. 

As of today, we’ve also updated our Return to Play Fund’s criteria to encourage more applications from groups and clubs that support people aged over 70 and from the 16-34 age group.In addition to funding, we also offered the sector advice and practical resources, while we worked with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure the guidance as to what was and wasn’t allowed at different stages was communicated effectively to activity providers as well as the general public. This work supported the return of sport as one of the government’s key priorities as restrictions eased.  

We also published a range of toolkits and resources to help sports clubs and physical activity groups to continue to function and engage with their members while their usual activities were restricted.  

We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s ability to engage in sport and physical activity, but the reality is it could have been worse. It is encouraging to see in the survey that so many still found ways to be active despite the majority of opportunities being unavailable or severely restricted.  

Alongside the support that we were able to offer, the response of the sector has been remarkable, and I pay tribute to everyone who has worked so hard to keep sport and physical activity going despite the most challenging situation of our lifetime.

However, today’s report has also reminded us that not everyone has been impacted equally and we owe it to the groups disproportionately affected – women, young people, disabled people, people with a long-term health condition, and those from a Black or Asian background in particular – to do everything we can to help them to return to activity in the coming weeks and months.

In particular, the decline in activity levels in the 16-24 age group is of major concern - helping and inspiring young people to reengage with sport and physical activity has now to be a number one priority not just for Sport England but for us all.

The report has also shown that, while new and more informal forms of physical activity are a great option for many, the role that organised sports and teams and our gyms and pools up and down the country play is still absolutely vital – not least in connecting our communities and reaffirming the social bonds we all need. The government understands this and we will continue to work closely with them to ensure the sport and physical activity sector remains a priority on the roadmap to reopening.

Tim Hollingsworth
Chief executive, Sport England

Demographic variations

  • Age

    Activity levels fell for both the 16-34 and 35-54 age groups compared to 12 months ago. 

    This continues the downward trend seen before the pandemic for the 16-34 age group, with the proportion who are active having fallen a further 2.6%/410k compared to the previous 12 months. Within this, it’s the 16-24 age group particularly driving the decreases. 

    Activity levels had been growing strongly amongst the 55-74 and 75+ age groups prior to the coronavirus pandemic, however, many of these gains have been lost as activity levels fell notably when restrictions were introduced. 

    Read more

  • Gender

    Both men (-2.4%) and women (-1.4%) saw decreases in activity levels over the year as a whole. However, while male activity levels dropped by a larger amount in the initial lockdown between mid-March to mid-May (-8.9% versus –5.4%) they recovered more quickly, while female activity levels remained consistently lower than 12 months earlier.  

    Read more

  • Socio-economic groups

    Activity levels fell amongst all socio-economic groups compared to the same period a year ago.  

    However, the fall was larger for those from lower socio-economic groups (-2.1%) than those from higher groups (-0.9%) and as such, the inequalities we were already seeing have widened. 

    Read more

  • Ethnicity

    The impact of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those of Asian and Black backgrounds and, as such, inequalities that already existed have widened.  

    Read more

  • Disabled people and people with long-term health conditions

    Decreases were the greatest during the initial lockdown phase amongst both those with and without a disability or long-term health condition – in line with the national picture.

    Read more

Minister's comments

  • Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston

    "The past year has undoubtedly been a difficult one for our mental and physical health but, throughout the pandemic, we have prioritised the early return of grassroots sport and exercise at every stage.

    Read more

What's next?

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 21 October. It’ll cover the period from May 2020 to May 2021 and, as such, will reflect 12 months of restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus – including the November 2020 and January-March 2021 national lockdowns.  

Additional information 

The Active Lives Adult Survey, which was established in November 2015, provides a world-leading approach to gathering data on how adults aged 16 and over in England engage with sport and physical activity. 

The survey is conducted to provide decision-makers, government departments, local authorities, delivery bodies and the sport and physical activity sector detailed insight and understanding as to people's sport and physical activity habits. 

It’s carried out by leading research company IPSOS-MORI and produced by us in collaboration with Arts Council England, Public Health England and the Department for Transport.

Channel website: http://www.sportengland.org/

Original article link: https://www.sportengland.org/news/impact-coronavirus-activity-levels-revealed

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