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Adults’ activity levels in England bounce back to pre-pandemic levels

The number of people playing sport and taking part in physical activity has returned to where it was before Covid-19, but inequalities remain.

20th April 2023

Activity levels for adults in England increased last year and have bounced back to where they were before the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The figures, which we’ve published today, show that the overall number of people playing sport and getting active has recovered, after participation fell as a result of the restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus.

A rugby scrum

Key findings

Our latest Active Lives Adult Survey report is the first release to cover a period without any coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions since the pandemic. 

It shows , between November 2021 and November 2022, 63.1% (29.1 million) of the population met the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of doing 150 minutes, or more, of moderate intensity physical activity a week – an increase of 1.7% year on year.

This means that, compared with when we first ran the survey between November 2015 and November 2016, there are 1.5m more active adults – a statistically significant number.   

The number of people classed as inactive – averaging fewer than 30 minutes a week – has fallen over the last year by 1.4%, to 25.8% of the population (11.9m). This remains slightly above pre-pandemic levels but is in line with where they were in 2015-16. 

The ongoing recovery wasn’t guaranteed and is testament to the dedication of those working and volunteering in sport and physical activity, as well as the significant investment of exchequer and National Lottery money, that has helped the sector not just to survive the worst of the pandemic but to bounce back.

A graphic showing activity levels in England. It shows 63.1% are active, 11.1% are fairly active and 25.8% are classed as inactive.

Types of activity

Today’s report also gives us a detailed understanding of the types of activities people are undertaking and how these have changed over time.

Team sports, which were severely hit by the impact of Covid-19, have overall recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Football (up 561k year on year), cricket (up 124k), netball (up 139k) and basketball (up 57k) have seen an increase in participation numbers since restrictions were lifted.

This is important as people who play team sports are more likely to report they find sport and exercise enjoyable and satisfying than who take part in other forms of activity.

The release shows that the number of people walking for leisure – which boomed during lockdowns – has understandably fallen back but remains well above its pre-Covid-19 figure.

Conversely, fitness activities and active travel saw big drops during the pandemic but have seen significant rises over the last 12 months, although both remain below their pre-coronavirus levels.

An in-depth analysis of the types of activity people took part in is available further down this webpage.

Demographic variations

However, while the overall picture is positive and there is clear progress, the data shows that the scale of recovery has varied across different sections of society with women, those from lower socio-economic groups and Black and Asian people still less likely to be active than others.

It’s why our strategy, Uniting the Movement, has a strong focus on tackling inequalities, and why we’re investing more in the people and places that need extra support.

Variations by age

Age continues to be a major factor that determines how likely a person is to be physically active, and the older a person is the less likely they are to meet the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines.

However, this masks some long-term trends and, despite a significant recovery over the last year, there are now nearly half a million fewer active young people (aged 16-34) than six years ago.

Conversely, we were seeing significant progress in older adults’ activity levels prior to the pandemic and these continued to increase once restrictions were lifted. There are now 1.3m (5.0%) more active 55-74-year-olds and just over half a million (7.8%) more active people aged 75+ than there were in November 2015-16.

Addressing the long-term decline in young adults activity levels remains a priority for us and we'll continue to work with our partners to ensure activity offerings appeal to this younger generation so they can benefit from the profound health, social and personal benefits that being active brings. 

Variations by place

Activity levels fell across all places during the pandemic. However, Covid-19’s impact on activity levels was greatest in the most deprived places (IMD 1-3).

Today’s report shows that the scale of recovery also differs by deprivation level.

The least deprived places (IMD 8-10) have seen a full return to pre-pandemic activity levels, while mid-deprived places (IMD 4-7) have seen a partial recovery but remain 0.8% down. These places’ activity levels are still above where they were in November 2015-16 (up 1.0%) when we started the survey.

However, the most deprived places (IMD 1-3) have fared far worse, with activity levels remaining below both pre-pandemic (down 3.1%) and November 2015-16 levels (down 2.6%).

Expanding our place-based working by collaborating with more places on their local priorities and partnership opportunities, and helping them use sport and physical activity to deliver the outcomes they want and their communities need, is a key part of our Uniting the Movement strategy and we’ll be focussing our efforts in the most deprived places where we can make the biggest impact.

A detailed breakdown of how people’s relationship with sport and physical activity, and attitudes towards it, varies across different demographics is available further down this webpage.

How this compares to our findings on children’s activity levels

Today’s report compliments our Active Lives Children and Young People Survey we published in December. That report, which focussed on children’s activity levels across the 2021-22 academic year, showed a similar return to pre-pandemic activity levels, albeit with some concerns about demographic groups.

Download the report

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:

Chief executive's reaction

“The Covid-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge to community sport and activity in England, so it’s great news that the overall number of people being physically active has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

“Alongside our significant and targeted investment of both Government and National Lottery funding, the monumental effort of those working across sport and physical activity, both professionals and volunteers, has played a huge part here. I would like to pay tribute to their work in supporting the recovery and getting more people moving once again.

“We know full-well, however, that there is still much to do. It’s clear that alongside continuing significant financial challenges, the recovery has not been universal, and today’s report provides further evidence that some groups face more barriers to being active than others, with women, those living in the most deprived places and Black and Asian people are less likely to enjoy the benefits of sport and being active than others.

“That’s exactly why our Uniting the Movement strategy continues to see us work with our partners to disproportionally focus resources and funding towards the people and places that need the most support to be active.

“Today’s data also shows the challenge facing the country in ensuring young adults continue to engage with physical activity and we’ll work with our partners to ensure the offer available to this group remains relevant and accessible.”

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

Minister's comments

“It’s great to see physical activity among adults return to pre-pandemic levels which were at an all time high. But we know that stubborn inactivity levels predate the Covid-19 pandemic and there is always more that can be done to encourage people to get active or find a sport they love.

“Our new sports strategy will look to address issues faced by grassroots sports and get more people involved. This is in addition to our investment in grassroots facilities - from football pitches to tennis courts - giving people nationwide more opportunities to get active.”

Rt Hon Lucy Frazer KC MP
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

A woman swimming in a pool

Deep dive: Demographic variations

  • Age

    Activity levels generally decrease with age, with the sharpest decrease coming for those over 75.

    However, despite strong year-on-year growth as participation continues to bounce back from the impact of the pandemic, over the longer term there remains a clear downward trend in young adults’ activity levels and there are now nearly half a million (2.7%) fewer active young people (aged 16-34) than six years ago (November 2015-16).

    This overall fall for 16-34-year-olds is despite the perceived opportunity to be active having returned to pre-pandemic (November 18-19) levels.

    There is more positive news regarding older adults. Both 55-74-year-olds and those aged 75+ were seeing activity levels grow before the impact of Covid-19.

    This growth stalled during the pandemic but those aged 55-74 have now seen activity levels increase once more (up 0.9% from Nov 18-19), while we recorded the highest ever reported activity level for those aged over 75. This represents 1.3m (5.0%) more active 55-74-year-olds, and just over half a million (7.8%) more active people aged over 75 compared to 2015-16.

    The proportion of people who believe they have the ability or opportunity to be active decreases with age.

    An example of work in this area

    Dance On provides opportunities for people of all ages and abilities in Yorkshire to take part in dance classes.

    They work with local health partners across Yorkshire to use sport and physical activity as a preventative approach to improve physical and mental wellbeing and help people live longer, healthier and happier lives.

    Dance On has received National Lottery funding to support older adults to get active in diverse ways that are relevant, practical and enjoyable for them.

    Read less
  • Gender

    Men (66%) are more likely to be active than women (61%) and those who describe themselves in another way (59%).

    Both men and women saw a clear drop in activity levels during the pandemic, but men saw slightly more pronounced changes.

    While men’s activity levels have returned to the highs seen in November 2018-19, women’s activity levels remain slightly below this (down 0.7%).

    Both, however, continue to see activity levels up over the longer term (since Nov 15-16).

    The contrasting activity levels of men and women is also reflected by their corresponding attitudes to sport and physical activity.

    Men (44%) are more likely to feel able to be active than women (35%). Men are also more likely to perceive they have the opportunity to be active (38% vs. 29%) and to find sports enjoyable and satisfying (38% vs. 25%).

    In a similar way that activity levels haven’t recovered fully for women where they have for men, perceived opportunity to be active remains down by more for women (-1.9%) than men (-0.8%).

    An example of work in this area

    This Mum Runs organise group runs both in person and through their app to support one another in getting active.

    They know from experience just how hard it is to make time for exercise or even just get started.

    Their community of more than 200,000 women worldwide is about freedom, friendship and family, empowering people not to be faster but to be healthier and happier, giving women the confidence to put their wellbeing back at the top of their to-do list.

    Read less
  • Socio-economic groups

    Those from lower social groups (NS-SEC 6-8) are the least likely to be active. Just 53% of these groups are active compared to 73% of higher social groups (NS-SEC 1-2).

    Activity levels fell across all social groups during the pandemic; however, it was the least affluent (NS-SEC 6-8) that saw the greatest impact.

    While activity levels have recovered and risen above pre-pandemic levels (up 0.6% from November 2018-19) among the most affluent (NS-SEC 1-2) and are back in line with pre-pandemic levels for the mid-affluent groups (NS-SEC 3-5), they remain below the highs seen six years ago (November 2015-16, down 2.1%) for the least affluent (NS-SEC 6-8).

    This is especially stark when we also consider the deprivation of place.

    Activity levels fell across all places during the pandemic; however the scale of the drops was greatest in the most deprived places (IMD 1-3).

    The picture of recovery also differs by deprivation level.

    The least deprived places (IMD 8-10) see a return to pre-pandemic activity levels, with indications of an underlying upward trend.

    The mid-deprived places (IMD 4-7) haven’t seen full recovery to pre-pandemic levels, remaining 0.8% down but still see activity levels above November 2015-16 (up 1.0%).

    However, it’s again the most deprived places (IMD 1-3) that fare worse, with activity levels remaining below both pre-pandemic (down 3.1%) and November 2015-16 levels (down 2.6%).

    An example of work in this area

    Since 2000, Saheli Hub have delivered a wide range of opportunities to help women from areas of high deprivation in physical activity.

    They’ve nurtured and developed a volunteer-force from the local community, who are now trained and qualified as cycling, run and multi-sports leaders – providing a pathway to employment and particularly increasing representation of Asian women in physical activity.

    Read less
  • Ethnicity

    The proportion of people who play sport or are physically active varies between different ethnic groups.

    Activity levels fell across all ethnicities during the pandemic, with drops greatest among adults with Asian (-4.4%), Black (-4.5%) and other ethnicities (-7.6%).

    Recovery back to November 2018-19 levels has been seen across all groups, with the exception of those from Other ethnicities - who remain down by 6.2%.

    No ethnic minority group is showing a reportable difference compared to November 2015-16, within our margin of error.

    As a result, inequalities continue to widen as White British adults have seen activity levels increase over the same period (up 1.6%).

    An example of work in this area

    Trapped in Zone One’s ‘Move and Stretch’ programme is open to females aged 18 and over from diverse ethnic backgrounds living, working, and studying in Tower Hamlets.

    Sessions improve fitness and activity levels in free weekly in-person group exercise class. The sessions are a way for women who have faced similar barriers to getting active to come together as a community to motivate one another to be active. 

    Read less
  • Disabled people and people with long-term health conditions

    Activity is less common for adults with a disability or long-term health condition (47%), than those without (68%).

    However, adults with a disability or long-term health condition have seen activity levels recover over the past 12 months.

    Both those with and without a disability or long-term health condition saw activity levels fall during the pandemic, however both groups have returned to November 2018-19 levels.

    As a result, there are now 3.8% more adults with a disability or long-term health condition who are active than in November 2015-16.

    An example of work in this area

    Cerebral Palsy Sport are a long-term partner of ours and work in levelling up access to sport and physical activity across the country.

    They are here to enhance the lives of people with cerebral palsy and the wider disability sport community. Signposting to local, accessible activities and raise awareness of cerebral palsy, as well as the physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits of being active.

    Read less

Deep dive: Types of activities

The pandemic changed people’s relationship with sport and physical activity.

Today’s report shows that, while some of these changes were temporary, it seems some of Covid-19's impact has led to more permanent shifts in behaviour. 

Walking for leisure was growing steadily before the pandemic and saw accelerated growth during it, with walking often becoming one of the few activities readily available when others were restricted.

While we’ve seen a fall in walking levels compared to 12 months ago, this isn’t unexpected given other activities saw their numbers recover, we continue to see an underlying strong upward trend, with 2.6m more walkers compared to before the pandemic (November 2018-19) and 4.6m more compared to six years ago (November 2015-16).

Conversely, despite seeing some growth previously, fitness activities and active travel both saw large drops in numbers during the pandemic that are yet to fully recover.

As a result, both see fewer people taking part – with fitness down by more than 650,000 people (compared to November 16-17) and active travel down by more than 800,000 people (compared to November 2015-16).

Cycling for leisure and sport, and running (includes treadmill) both had slightly falling numbers before the pandemic and both saw numbers increase during it.

However, since the pandemic we’ve seen different outcomes for each with cycling for leisure and sport remaining up on pre-pandemic (by just over 300,000) but running dropping further, continuing the prior trend (down by nearly 1m since November 2015-16).

Swimming and team sports both had downward trends before the pandemic and were perhaps the most impacted activities given the nature and locations of taking part in them.

While swimming has seen significant recovery, levels remain below pre-pandemic and we see a continuation of the downward trend (down by just over 1m since Nov 15-16).

In contrast, team sports have recovered to pre-pandemic levels with indications of a stabilisation at around 3.1m players.

Further reading

The impact of Uniting the Movement

Our long-term strategy, Uniting the Movement, aims to transform lives and communities through sport and physical activity.

Initially focussed on helping grassroots sports clubs and physical activity providers recover from the effects of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, Uniting the Movement is now primarily concerned with tackling the long-standing inequalities that make it much harder for some people to enjoy the benefits of being active than others.

Two years of Uniting the Movement

What today’s results mean for the sector

Our chief strategy officer, Nick Pontefract, has written a blog about how the results from today's Active Lives Adult Survey report must influence the sport and physical activity sector over the next 12 months.

Read the blog

What's next?

We'll publish our next Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report, which will cover the 2022/23 academic year, on Thursday 7 December 2023. 

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 25 April 2024. It’ll cover the period from November 2022 to November 2023.    

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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