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Why we now measure strength in Active Lives

Today’s report gives us a better understanding of how many people are meeting muscle strength guidelines in England.

29th April 2021

by Suzie Gittus
Senior programme and relationship manager, Sport England

This morning, we published our latest Active Lives Adult Survey report that tells us how people in England are engaging with sport and physical activity.  

For the first time, today’s publication included questions around muscle strength.  

A woman working out in the gym

As with physical activity levels, there are key inequalities for those meeting the muscle strength guidelines. Notably: 

  • Men (66%) are more likely to meet it than women (62%) 
  • Likelihood dramatically reduces from age 75 upwards, with just a quarter of 85+ year-olds meeting the guidelines 
  • Only 46% of disabled people or people with a long-term health condition are meeting the guidelines, falling to just 36% of those with three or more impairments 
  • Those from lower socio-economic groups (NS-SEC 6-8) are less likely to meet the guidelines than those from higher socio-economic groups (NS-SEC 1-2) 
  • Those from Black (50%), Asian - excluding Chinese (47%) and other ethnic groups (51%) are the least likely to meet the guidelines. 

Building and maintaining muscle and bone strength is important as they play a critical role in ensuring good muscular and skeletal health, and in maintaining physical function.  

This is even more relevant now as many people have physically de-conditioned as a result of the pandemic - particularly those shielding or with long-term health conditions.  

Strengthening activity will play a crucial role in supporting these people to improve their physical strength and helping to improve their capability and confidence to return to pre-coronavirus activity habits. 

There’s also a strong evidence base for the role strengthening activity can play in injury prevention. Therefore, it will also play a role in those with an active habit returning to physical activity in a safe and injury-free way. 

Taking part in strengthening exercises is one of the best things someone can do to keep muscles strong, bones healthy, reduce pain and prolong joint life but, despite this, very few are aware of the benefits or taking part in strengthening activity compared to aerobic exercise.

Muscle strength naturally declines with age after we hit 30, but we can also slow the decline by taking part in strengthening activity. This isn’t just limited to lifting weights in the gym, however, as racquet sports and everyday activities, such as climbing stairs, carrying heavy bags of shopping or even gardening, can make a big difference.  

Taking part in strengthening exercises like these is one of the best things someone can do to keep muscles strong, bones healthy, reduce pain and prolong joint life but, despite this, very few are aware of the benefits or taking part in strengthening activity compared to aerobic exercise. 

Acknowledging this gap in knowledge and a lack of leadership in this space, we embarked on an investment with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy to explore the public’s and physiotherapists’ perceptions of strengthening activity and to develop possible solutions in the form of tools, resources and messages to support the uptake. 

Yet, until today, we had only a limited idea how many people were actually meeting the Chief Medical Officer's guidelines. The only other national self-reported measure was the Health Survey for England, which showed only 31% of men and 23% of women meet both the aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines. It's worth noting, however, that this survey looked at different activities for measuring strength, and did not include walking, therefore the two surveys cannot be directly compared and it shouldn’t be interpreted as a huge rise. 

Today’s Active Lives release gives us and the sport and physical activity sector a better understanding of the current picture and moving forward we’ll monitor the numbers to see how people's relationship with strength changes over time.  

As we continue to develop our Uniting the Movement strategy, we’ll further explore our role in the strengthening agenda and how we can raise awareness of the importance and uptake.

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