Blog: The weather's impact on activity

Rain, snow and yes, even some sunshine – 2018 has thrown up a smörgåsbord of weather so far. And it's got our Director of Insight, Lisa O'Keefe, thinking. In this blog, she looks at the impact weather has on how active we are and explores some of the recent trends.

03 May 2018

A person shovelling snow off a football pitch

Walking into the office at the start of this week, struggling with the brolly in the wind and rain, I found myself reflecting on the contrasting weather served up recently. It’s hard to believe that less than two weeks ago we were saluting the efforts of more than 40,000 runners in the London Marathon, who not only completed 26.2 miles but did so in temperatures of up to 24 degrees Celsius. What a difference a week makes!

That had me wondering about the impact of the weather on our sporting behaviour. Given that 2018 has already served up some unusual levels of snow, rain and (all be it short) sunshine, what better time to look at its impact.

Weather Patterns

Looking back to the start of January 2018, it would be fair to say that the weather was promising. If anything, it was a little bit warmer than average and with below average rainfall, those who play outdoor winter sports would have been pleasantly surprised. No sense at that stage of the change ahead (see chart 1).

Chart 1: Mean Temperature in England (January-March 2018)

Source: Active People Survey

February brought the much colder than average weather which was to remain with us up to March. With it came widespread snow and daytime temperatures remaining below freezing for many parts of the country. Who can forget the images of families sledging and snowboarding in their local parks? Great images, but the reality was a huge amount of disruption for all.

Weather records were broken. March was the coldest since 2013 and the Met Office issued two Red Warnings for snow, as the UK experienced a significant spell of snow and low temperatures. If that wasn’t enough, we also had the wettest March since 1981.

Impact of Weather on Behaviour

But what impact do extremes of weather have on our behaviour when it comes to sport and exercise?

The COM-B model of behaviour suggests that for a behaviour to take place, three elements need to be in place – capability, motivation and opportunity.

Bad weather could certainly impact all three of those elements: whether people are questioning their ability to do something given the weather conditions; or the opportunity is not available with pitches under water; or motivation levels are impacted as we look out of the window and decide 'not to bother'.  It’s obvious how exercise habits can easily be broken.

At Sport England, we're able to analyse over 10 years of data when it comes to adults in England taking part in sport and physical activity, and when we look at this in conjunction with extreme weather, we can see some interesting patterns.

For example, the first three months of 2013 (like 2018) were characterised by unusual weather. January through to March was the coldest recorded since 1962 (see chart 2).

Chart 2: Mean Temperature in England January-March 2013

Source: Met Office Online

As we can see in chart 3, we observed a clear drop in the overall activity levels of adults during that period.

Chart 3: 1x30 sports participation January-March 2013

Source: Active People Survey

Cycling, golf, running and football all reported lower than average numbers of people taking part, and the numbers of people specifically reporting the weather as the reason for being less active jumped considerably (see chart 4).

Chart 4: Playing Less Sport Due to Weather January-March 2013

Source: Active People Survey

In the summer of 2014, we also saw a clear drop in activity levels. On that occasion, it coincided with unsettled weather and heavy rainfall (resulting in amber weather warnings and flood alerts) in August and September of that year, as the remnants of what had been Hurricane Bertha swept across the UK (see chart 5).

Chart 5: Adult Doing at least 1 x 30 mins of Sport Per Week in England July-September 2014

Source: Active People Survey

So, history suggests a correlation between extremes of weather and our activity levels, and who better to ask than National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs) who can provide an interesting picture of what is happening up and down the country in their sport.

Focusing specifically on January to March 2018, a number of NGBs have reported considerable disruption.

Intuitively, outdoor winter sports are likely to bear the brunt of the bad weather. This certainly appears to be the case in 2018, as club volunteers up and down the country worked hard to rearrange postponed fixtures and cajole players to make themselves available for alternate fixture dates.

The Football Association report that so far in the 2017/18 season, 53,000 matches have been postponed due to weather and/or pitch condition. England Hockey report a larger than normal number of league fixtures cancellations, and in an unprecedented step, their inter-schools competition had to be cancelled on two occasions.

The same story is being experienced within rugby league clubs up and down the country. March in particular was a story of low temperatures, frozen or waterlogged pitches – all contributing to hundreds of fixtures being rearranged and the removal of any slack within the calendar for further postponements.

The disruption is not confined to team sports. England Golf reports that the number of rounds of golf played across England, Wales and Scotland during the first quarter of 2018 is down 22% compared with last year. Hardest hit has been the north of England, which has experienced a reduction of 33% on the first quarter of 2017.

Similarly, British Cycling reports disruption to their cycling programme caused by snowy weather in February and March, with the number of cancelled rides more than double the same period last year.

Hoping for settled weather

So, the evidence suggests that the unusual weather at the start of 2018 is having an impact on our behaviour when it comes to sport and exercise. Yet all is not lost – extreme weather events are by their very nature unusual, and the disruption that they cause is largely confined to specific moments in time.

That said, habits can be hard to establish and are easily broken, and it's likely that many of us are experiencing breaks in our sporting routine which may be difficult to recover from, while others are facing the prospect of an elongated season or a congested fixture programme.

For that reason, I'll be keeping a keen eye on the forecasts and hoping that summer arrives and brings a spell of settled weather. Nothing too hot! 

And I shall be delving into the detail of the next set of Active Lives results when they are published later this year, to look at the month by month patterns of behaviour.