I’d planned to celebrate the year I turned 50 with lots of (undoubtedly cliched) firsts – roller skating lessons in Hyde Park, walking up the UK’s highest mountains (not in the same weekend), an Olympic-distance triathlon and a tattoo.
I was still compiling the list when it became clear 2020 had other ideas – my year of firsts replaced by a year at home; an unprecedented nine months (and counting) that generated new experiences, all of which (perhaps naively) I didn’t have the wit to conjure up. Even as we were sent home in March, I couldn’t believe we’d still be here now.
Back in March, as it became clear the pandemic would force some restrictions on our movements for a few weeks at least, at Sport England we considered how we could help people stay active. Although our primary role is to support the sport sector, in recent years our campaigns – This Girl Can and We Are Undefeatable – talked directly to groups of consumers who found it harder to get active.
Both campaigns have large and diverse target audiences, but as the whole country faced the pandemic together, could we successfully talk to everyone at the same time? And should we? With intensive care units filling and the lockdown being announced, weren’t there more important things than sport and exercise for people to focus on?
Keeping the nation active
At Sport England we always believed that sport and physical activity are important and, as normal life stopped, that importance was heightened. It mattered for all the reasons it always did, supporting our long and short-term physical mental health, personal development and social connections. But there were new reasons too – keeping us healthy, supporting our immune systems and helping us manage the stress, anxiety and fear caused by the virus itself, as well as isolation, home-schooling, working from home, not working at all and so on. Slumping on the sofa for the duration (even when we thought it might only be a few weeks) was tantalising but unhelpful.
Our Join the Movement campaign and online activity hub countered this – and it worked. When the campaign was in full swing, we could see activity levels rising (compared to the beginning of lockdown) and our evaluation showed 49% of the adults who recognised the campaign said it prompted them to take action.
We also worked with local and national partners to help them keep their communities active – gaining intelligence, providing clarity on the guidance, involving them in campaign creation and developing toolkits that help them tailor messages to meet local needs.
My year of firsts replaced by a year at home; an unprecedented nine months (and counting)
But the job is not done. Motivation was harder to find during the second period of national restrictions – bad weather and boredom blending into a dreary cocktail of tedium that could become more potent as we move into a January that may offer more same old, same old, than new year, new beginnings.
And while Strava recorded a very welcome record amount of activity in 2020, particularly from younger women, we know that not every demographic group has been able to get active.
Not surprisingly, our population-wide Active Lives survey shows falls in both the numbers of men and women getting active, especially those aged 55 and over. While our coronavirus activity tracker shows that older audiences, those on lower incomes and from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be inactive.
The pandemic has reinforced existing inequalities and that must change. We all, collectively, must change that.
This too shall pass
As we prepare to return and reinvent in 2021, there is an opportunity for change.
This year has been too terrible to talk about positives, but the disruption and dislocation have opened up established routines, attitudes and behaviours. The need for daily exercise and fresh air is widely discussed along with its link to mental health. We’ve all got better at asking each other if we’re ok and saying if we’re not. We’ve validated activities that may not look like traditional exercise – walking has been big this year – which makes it possible for more people with all abilities to see that regular activity is feasible for them. And many of us have found or rediscovered our local areas.
All of this needs to be nurtured as we move, eventually, into recovery so that more and more people can benefit from regular movement by finding what works for them – and this has to be done in collaboration with the partners who helped us respond so quickly.
The start of that recovery may coincide with my 51st birthday. I’m not making any lists yet, but I will get that tattoo. It was always going to be the Persian adage my mum said to me when I was full of angst about, well, whatever: This too shall pass. It’s more apposite than ever. This will be over one day and we must plan now how we are going to take the lessons we’ve learned with us.