The number of children and young people who were physically active fell during the 2019/20 academic year in England, as first storms and then the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic restricted the type of activities available.
The figures, published today in our latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey covering the 2019/20 academic year, show 44.9% of children and young people (3.2 million) met the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more a day.
This represents a decrease of 1.9% (86,500) compared to the same period 12 months ago, although activity levels remain higher than in 2017/18.
Some 31.3 (2.3m) did less than an average of 30 minutes a day, with an increase of 2.4% (+201,400) in the proportion who were less active over the last year. The number of less active children is still less than it was in 2017/18.
The survey showed activity levels were increasing during the autumn term (2019) and the overall drop over the academic year was due to disruption caused by the storms in the spring term and the impact of the pandemic across the summer term.
However, thanks to the dedication and resourcefulness of parents, teachers, coaches and organisations who deliver activities, the drop during the period between mid-May and late-July (when restrictions started to ease) was significantly less than it was for adults earlier in the pandemic.
Impact of coronavirus
As we were unable to collect data while schools were closed for most pupils during the first national lockdown – and as such are unable to report what was happening to children’s activity levels between March and early May – the survey represents the first period we’ve been able to reveal any impact restrictions designed to control the virus had on activity levels in children.
In the summer term, when some schools started to open again for more pupils in key year groups, the number of children and young people physically active fell by more than 100,000 (down 2.3% compared to the same period 12 months ago).
The numbers show children and young people were generally successful in adapting their habits to include new forms of exercise, however the types of activity they were able to do changed drastically.
Not surprisingly, sporting activities (which include team sports and swimming) were hardest hit, down 16% with just over 1 million fewer children and young people taking part, whilst the biggest gains were found in walking, cycling and fitness.
The lack of available choice also led to a significant drop in the physical literacy of our children and young people – which is made up of four elements: motivation (measured through enjoyment), confidence, competence plus knowledge and understanding. This means that, while in the short-term activity levels could largely be maintained, it’s possible there could be long-term consequences about how children feel about sport and activity.
It also highlights the importance of ensuring sport and physical activity in and outside of school is back up and running as soon as it’s safe to do so.
The report also shows the restrictions, while impacting everyone, hit certain social groups harder than others with those from Black and Asian backgrounds were more impacted than those who are White.
Tim Hollingsworth, our chief executive, said great credit is due to the hard work of parents/carers and the physical activity sector but the challenges caused by the pandemic are fierce.
We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on children and young people’s engagement in sport and physical activity and so it is encouraging to see so many still found ways to be active despite many popular activities being unavailable.
Yet, while we are pleased to see the increase in more informal activities such as walking and cycling, which were possible during the periods of restriction, we can’t underestimate the long-term effect on other sporting activities both in and out of school
Developing children and young people’s physical literacy is essential in creating a positive and lifelong relationship with activity and without it many will not enjoy the health and social benefits associated with living active lives.
The figures clearly demonstrate how important it will be to open facilities and encourage the return to play as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Schools play a vital role in keeping young people active – both through physical education and by providing the facilities many clubs and groups rely on – and it’s imperative they’re in a position to facilitate physical activity the moment they can.
The pandemic has impacted us all in some way, but today’s report reminds us that it has not impacted everyone equally. We owe it to the groups most affected to do all we can to get sport and physical activity up and running in all its forms.
Chief executive, Sport England
Across the whole academic year, boys (47% or 1.7m) remained more likely to be active than girls (43% or 1.5m), with a gap of 213,000.
However, girls adapted better than boys to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.
Boys’ activity levels fell over the summer term by 6.4%, with just under 200,000 fewer boys meeting the recommended level of activity across mid-May to late-July compared to the same period 12 months earlier.
This is perhaps unsurprising given boys are more likely to take part in organised activities such as teams sports and, whilst training sessions returned in June, organised sport did not return until July.
During the summer term, girls’ activity levels increased by 2.4%, with just over 100,000 more girls meeting the recommended level of activity across mid-May to late-July compared to summer 2019. The increases were concentrated mostly amongst the teenagers and the youngest girls.
Overall, this reflects that girls adapted well to alternative activities with increases in ‘fitness’ and walking.
Enjoying taking part and knowing how to get involved dropped for boys but not for girls. As girls haven’t shown any drop for enjoyment, this might also explain why activity levels generally held up better.
Children and young people from the most affluent backgrounds saw the largest decrease in activity levels, whilst those from the least affluent families didn’t see activity levels change compared to 12 months ago. Despite this there remains a large gap, with children from the least affluent families being much less active than those from the most affluent families.
However, those from the least affluent families saw drops in the proportion enjoying taking part, feeling confident when taking part and finding it easy (competence). Whilst activity levels currently remain unchanged, reduced positivity about taking part is a cause for concern.
Children and young people from White British backgrounds are more likely to be active than all other ethnic groups except for White Other (children and young people who self-identify as white but are aren’t of the English, Welsh, Scottish, Romani or Irish ethnic groupings).
Decreases in activity levels compared to 12 months ago have been driven by children and young people of Mixed and Black ethnicities.
The gender gap in activity levels is widest amongst Asian and Black children and young people, with boys being more likely to be active than girls.
The pandemic heightened these inequalities, with the gap between White British and Asian and Black children growing during the summer term.
Guidelines indicate that children should be able to swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25m by the time they leave primary school.
The data shows that 77% of children in Year 7 (the first year of secondary school, ages 11-12) can do this. There’s been no change in this compared to 12 months ago.
However, this differs greatly depending on affluence, with 84% of children and young people from the most affluent families being able to swim 25m unaided, compared to 41% of those from the least affluent families.
With public and school swimming pools closed for the majority of the summer term, the proportion of young people swimming unsurprisingly fell across all demographics during this period.
Schools Minister - Nick Gibb
“As we navigate these necessary national restrictions, we remain clear on just how important exercise is to young people's health and wellbeing, whilst staying safe at home.Read more
“The government has worked alongside organisations like Sport England to encourage pupils to stay active before, during and after the school day whether they are currently attending school or not.
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19 schools have continued to provide PE to those attending and have provided innovative remote teaching of PE and physical activity. The £320m per year Primary PE and Sport premium funding can be used to support this.
“Families can also refer to a wide range of resources to support their children’s physical activity at home, including those from organisations such as the Association for Physical Education, Youth Sport Trust, Swim England and Sport England.”
Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston
"This has been an exceptionally tough year, so these figures demonstrate just how resilient young people have been in finding ways to keep active when their normal routines have been affected.Read more
"As we navigate these necessary new social restrictions, I want to pay tribute to the parents, teachers, coaches, and range of organisations that are playing a vital role in keeping children active, and protecting their health and wellbeing in the process.
“Throughout this pandemic, we have placed the importance of sport and physical activity at the heart of our agenda. I can assure families that the reopening of gyms and community sport facilities will be a priority, when the public health situation allows."