Sport England survey shows three million fewer people active during lockdown

More than three million people became part of the country’s inactive population rates in the early period of lockdown, in what has been described as an “unprecedented disruption” to people’s exercise habits.  

Sport England’s latest Active Lives survey tracked activity levels from mid-May 2019 to mid-May 2020, and it included the first seven weeks of the initial lockdown restrictions in the UK. Between mid-March and mid-May 2020 there was a seven per cent increase in adults being classed as inactive compared to the same period in 2019. It means 3.4m more people are only managing to complete less than 30 minutes of exercise a week.

Some of the worst hit groups included those with disabilities or long-term health problems and over-55s, due to many being advised to shield. The survey also found that the gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups widened during early lockdown. Unsurprisingly, there were less than half the usual number of participants that played team sports, while swimming and racket sports also recorded a significant drop, as sports facilities closed.

Despite the drop off, the number of active adults over the whole year remained stable, due to significant growth in the rest of the year-long period before lockdown. Additionally, some activities had seen a rise in participation, with an extra 1.2m people riding bikes for leisure during the early period of the nation’s initial lockdown, while an extra 2.1m exercised at home, compared to the same period last year.

That last statistic was largely driven by women. An earlier Sport England-commissioned survey in April revealed that women’s activity levels were being disproportionately affected during the early weeks of lockdown, as they were more likely to say they were doing less activity than usual. But, according to the latest information gathered by Sport England, they actually found it easier to adapt to at-home online alternatives than men – who relied more on inaccessible racket and team sports – so saw a smaller drop in fitness activity. 

Though the gender gap was reduced, it remains that fewer women are active than men, and the wider picture for the period was a negative one, as the proportion of the population classed as active dropped by 7.1% – representing over three million fewer active adults.

“This report paints a frank and revealing picture of both the ongoing growth in activity levels across England before the pandemic and people’s determination to keep active even when they could only leave their homes once a day,” Sport England CEO, Tim Hollingsworth said. “Though the early months of lockdown brought unprecedented disruption to our lives and had a huge impact on our overall engagement in sport and physical activity, it is also positive to see how many people turned to new activities like cycling, fitness at home and running.

“It also highlights the challenges this year has brought to those groups who already find it harder than most to be active… reminding us of the importance of educational settings, community leisure facilities and team sports that underpin access to activity for so many people across England.”

“As facilities have reopened and activities have restarted, great credit is due to those who are out there working incredibly hard ensuring people can return to the sports and activities they love, and though we know the winter months will bring additional challenges, with government support we will continue to support our sector through our funding, our insight and our campaigns.”

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