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Activity levels see partial recovery from Covid-19 

People are returning to sport and physical activity but opportunities remain unequal, latest data finds.

28th April 2022

Activity levels are starting to recover following large drops caused by coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic restrictions, our latest Active Lives Adult Survey report shows.  

Covering the period between November 2020 and November 2021, the results, which have been published today, show that while activity levels obviously dropped as a result of restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus, they then stabilised and are now starting to recover.  

Between November 2020 and November 2021, 61.4% of the population were active, and 27.2% were inactive. The recovery started in mid-March 2021 when there was a rise of 3% to 61.2% of the population getting active (between mid-March – mid-May), compared to just 58.2% 12 months earlier.  

A skateboarder enjoying himself in a park

While numbers are still down compared to pre-pandemic, with 600k (1.9%) fewer active adults and 1.3m (2.6%) more inactive adults, the recovery is a testament to the work and investment that went into helping people stay active during a period of unprecedented restrictions. 

However, while this initial recovery is good news, the data shows that this is not universal, with many people struggling, a trend that emerged before the pandemic and which is why our strategy, Uniting the Movement, has such a strong focus on tackling inequalities and barriers.  

A slide from the Active Lives report showing activity levels. 27.2% (12.4 million) are inactive, 11.5% (5.2 million) are fairly active, 61.4% (28 million) are 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: 

When restrictions were lifted in July 2021, the number of people saying they felt they had the opportunity to be active increased close to levels we saw pre the emergence of coronavirus. 

Team sports participation numbers bounced back close to pre-pandemic levels, following large drops during restrictions. Football (+2% across mid-July - mid-September 2021), cricket (+0.3% mid-July – mid-September 2021) and basketball (+0.3% mid-September – mid-November 2021) in particular have seen large numbers of returners which is driving the overall recovery in team sports.  

However, because pre-pandemic, the numbers taking part in team sports were declining, we are continuing to support this part of our sector to recover and to reinvent how it provides opportunities to play sport and get active. This builds on the £270million of funding we provided to support grassroots sport and physical activity early on during the most severe restrictions and includes our continuing multi-million investment into community sport facilities.  

There is positive news for older people with recovery to pre-pandemic levels seen in activity levels for those aged 55-74 and 75+ while the report is also clear which audiences continue to struggle. 

We continue to work closely with partners across the sport and physical activity landscape, not just to drive demand and increase participation, but also to ensure the long-term viability of the sector through a focus on work in areas like safeguarding, coaching, governance and leadership development.   

Two men playing football

Overall population numbers hide stark inequalities with women, those from ethnically diverse communities, those living in more deprived areas, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions still less likely to be active than others, and the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities for the least affluent, Asian people, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions in particular.  

The gap in activity levels between the haves and have nots has also widened during the pandemic, with those that live in deprived areas seeing bigger drops in activity levels than those in more well-off areas. For example, activity fell 4.4% for those living in the most deprived areas (IMD 1-3) compared to pre-pandemic compared to a 1.2% for those in the least deprived areas (IMD 8-10).  

This is why our strategy, Uniting the Movement, has a strong focus on tackling inequalities and levelling up, and why we are disproportionately investing more in the people and places that need more support, for example by expanding our targeted place-based working and partnerships. 

While initial drops have stabilised for most groups, activity levels for the younger adults (16-34) have continued to fall at a worrying rate, continuing a downward trend that started before the pandemic. As the sport and physical activity sector recovers from coronavirus, it's vital that activity offerings appeal to this younger generation so they can benefit from the profound health, social and personal benefits that being active brings.  

We'll also continue to work with Active Travel England, the government’s agency, to improve cycling and walking infrastructure to make environments more suitable for the active travel with 51% of people saying they intend to do more walking, running or cycling for everyday journeys, which is likely to be linked to the cost of living crisis and rising fuel prices potentially making driving less accessible. 

“Today’s Active Lives report shows how activity levels are starting to recover. That’s testament to the dedication of all of those who worked so hard to bring activities back safely when restrictions started to be eased.

“Though this report clearly sets out the many challenges that lie ahead in supporting people to play more sport and lead more active lives, the key investments and resources we were able to provide during the harshest of restrictions also played an important role in helping sports get back on their feet.

“That the data tells us that this initial recovery is not universal is not a surprise and that is exactly why our Uniting the Movement strategy focuses resources and funding disproportionally towards the people and places that need the most support to be active.”

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

Minister's comments

  • Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston

    "I'm encouraged by the latest Active Lives survey results which shows levels of activity returning, but there is more to be done to tackle inactivity. 

    "We are working with Sport England to boost participation and our £1 billion investment through the pandemic means gyms, clubs and teams are ready to welcome people back. I urge everyone to follow the medical advice and do 60 minutes of exercise a day for children and 150 minutes of exercise per week for adults." 

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What happened to activity levels overall?

Our data shows that, between mid-November 2020 and mid-November 2021, just over six in 10 adults (28 million) achieved 150+ minutes of activity a week.  

A further 11.5% (5.2m) were fairly active but didn’t reach an average of 150 minutes a week, while 27.2% of people (12.4m) did less than an average of 30 minutes a week.  

Unsurprisingly, activity levels reflected the level of restrictions in place at different stages of the pandemic.  

There was a notable drop across mid-January to mid-March 2021 (which included a full national lockdown) compared to 12 months earlier. When restrictions eased, activity levels began to recover with increases seen across the summer compared to 12 months earlier.   

Despite this, with the exception of mid-September to mid-November, activity levels remain below pre-pandemic levels (2019).  

A women works out during a boxing session

Types of activity being undertaken 

Of those activities showing growth before the pandemic, only walking for leisure (+2.4m up to 24m) has continued to see numbers rise.  

Active Travel – walking or cycling to get to a specific place – (-666k) and fitness activities (-1.3m) have both been notably impacted and seen large drops in numbers taking part.  

However, 51% of people say they intend to do more walking, running or cycling for everyday journeys, which is likely to be linked to the cost of living crisis and rising fuel prices potentially making driving less accessible (Source: Savanta ComRes January 2022). 

Cycling for leisure and sport (-784k) and running (-863k) have both seen numbers fall back since restrictions were eased in March 2021, following an initial rise.   

Swimming (-354k) has seen a slight downward trend in numbers exacerbated by the pandemic with a large drop since November 2018-19.  

The scale of the recovery  

As the level of restrictions in place impacted activities in different ways, the scale of recovery has also differed by activity.   

Despite no annual recovery, since mid-July (when all legal restrictions were lifted) team sport numbers have, largely, returned to pre-pandemic levels (2019).   

Active travel numbers have seen a partial recovery from mid-March 2021 onwards whilst swimming numbers have started to recover since mid-May 2021.  

Fitness activity numbers remain notably below pre-pandemic levels across the whole year (down 1.3m).  

Demographic variations

  • Age

    It remains the case that activity levels generally decrease with age, with those aged 16-34 (67%) most likely to be active, with the lowest activity levels for those  age 75+ (to 39%).  

    However, the pandemic has hit young people’s activity levels harder and accelerated an existing downward trend with a further drop of 3.7% or 607,000 fewer active young people compared to November 2018-19. Over the last 5 years, this represents nearly a million (5.7%) fewer active young people.  

    This age group was also the only one to suffer a fall in activity levels over the past 12 months and was impacted more during the national lockdowns, with a fall of 1.1%  compared to the previous 12 months. 

    Activity levels fell amongst those aged 75+ at the start of the pandemic, however this drop has been recovered over the last 12 months. This may be related to guidance around shielding ending and a possible increased confidence to go out amongst this group.  

    What could be the reasons for this?  

    Lots of activities enjoyed by young people, such a team sports and fitness sessions, were unavailable for periods of the year and they were reluctant to switch to alternative forms of activity.   

    While the 25-34 age group showed a quick recovery when activity reopened, the 16-24 age group were less likely to return, and this underlines how important it will be to help this group reengage with activity. The youngest adults are also more likely to take part in active travel and this declined as people were required to work from home.  

    Older adults are more likely to take part in activities such as walking for leisure which was relatively unaffected by the restrictions.   

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  • Gender

    Both men and women have seen a clear drop in activity levels compared to pre-pandemic (November 18-19), with levels stabilising over the last 12 months. The drops were slightly greater for men (down 2.2% or 376,000) than women (down 1.7% or 266,000).  

    Within this, men saw larger drops during periods when more restrictions were in place but have recovered more quickly since the easing of restrictions in March 2021.   

    In contrast, women’s activity levels saw smaller drops and no reportable recovery across the same periods.  

    Across mid-November 2020 to mid-November 2021:  

    • 63.1% (14.0m) men were active  
    • 59.8% (13.9m) women were active  

    What could be the reasons for this?  

    Women’s enjoyment of physical activity – an important driver for taking part – declined more than men’s and drops in life satisfaction were greater for women, who were also more likely to report being lonely.   

    Opportunity could also be a factor. Women are more likely to have struggled with childcare and are more likely to experience employment and financial difficulties since more women were furloughed, and they’re more likely to be in industries where there were job losses. Safety fears are also considered to be a factor preventing some women from taking part in walking and running.    

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  • Socio-economic groups

    Activity levels among both the most and least affluent groups have seen a clear drop since the start of the pandemic in line with the national picture.   

    However, this drop is greater amongst the least affluent (down 1.7% compared to Nov 18-19), The most affluent record a drop of 0.8%.  

    Furthermore, the least affluent groups have not yet recorded any further recovery since July 2021, whereas the most affluent groups saw activity levels return to pre-pandemic levels.  

    What could be the reasons for this?  

    Adults from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to live in deprived areas and this is a factor as those from inner city areas were less likely to stay active during lockdown compared to those based in rural areas.  They were also more likely to face higher financial stresses like furlough and unemployment.  

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  • Ethnicity 

    Those with Mixed (68%), White British (63%) or White Other (65%) ethnicities remain more likely to be active than Chinese (58%), Black (55%) or Asian (excluding Chinese) (50%) people.   

    What could be the reasons for this?  

    Black and Asian people are more likely to live in more deprived places where activity levels are lower.  

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  • Disabled people and people with long-term health conditions 

    Activity levels for adults with a long-term health condition or a disability remain down compared to before the pandemic although their activity levels have stabilised over the last 12 months.   

    The drops in those active were proportionately slightly greater for those with a disability or long-term health condition (down 2.1%) than those without (down 1.4%).  

    Furthermore, the recovery has been more limited for adults in this group, with drops during the height of the initial restrictions in 2020 being retained. This indicates that any recovery might be slower for this group and additional support might be required to help them   

    What could be the reasons for this?  

    Those with a long-term health condition or a disability may be more reluctant to return to activity as society reopens as the impact of catching Covid-19 is more likely to be severe.   

    It’s important organisations and venues continue to demonstrate the actions they’re taking to ensure their venues are as safe as possible.  

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Our work through the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve supported the sector with more than £270m of funding, including our Community Emergency Fund and various Return to Play funding options that are helped keep sports clubs and activity providers going through a very difficult period.  

We've also managed the government's £600m Sport Survival Package, that has supported organisations under severe financial pressure, and the £100m National Leisure Recovery Fund to help public sector leisure centres to reopen to the public.  

To tackle inequalities and support those most impacted by the restrictions, we made over £40m of Tackling Inequalities Funding available and our campaigns Join the Movement, This Girl Can and We Are Undefeatable are continuing to help people stay active and provide guidance on how to find free, accessible activities.    

In December, we launched our three-year plan that set out the steps we’re taking to realise the ambitions in Uniting the Movement, and explained how we’ll continue to give support where it’s most needed as we help the sport and physical activity sector to recover and rebuild from Covid-19.  

Further reading

Our lead for volunteering, Jenny Betteridge, has written a blog about what today's Active Lives Adult Survey report tells us about volunteering and how our Uniting the Movement strategy will help more people enjoy the benefits associated with it. 

Read the blog

What's next?

We'll publish our next Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report, which will cover the 2021/22 academic year, on Thursday 8 December.  

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 20 April 2023. It’ll cover the period from November 2021 to November 2022 and, as such, will reflect the end of restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus.     

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 and produced by us in collaboration with the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, the Department for Transport and Arts Council England.  

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