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Children’s activity levels recover to pre-pandemic levels

Our latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey reveals strong growth, particularly for teenage girls, within the past year - showing that efforts to help children get active again are working.

08th December 2022

Children and young people’s activity levels overall have recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with 47% of children meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of sport and physical activity a day. 

The figures, which we've published today, are an encouraging step in the right direction but also a reminder there is much more to do so that as many children as possible feel the benefits of being active. 

Our Active Lives Children and Young People survey, which covers the 2021-22 academic year, shows that overall activity levels are up 2.6%, meaning there are 219,000 more active children compared to the previous academic year.

Activity levels are now back in line with the 2018-2019 academic year, the last full year before the pandemic.  

A girl wearing a head scarf laughs and smiles while playing netball in a school playground

While there are rises in both the numbers getting active outside school hours and during school hours, the in-school rise of 2.2% or just under 190,000 more children and young people taking part in an average of 30 minutes or more sport and physical activity a day, shows how hard schools worked to get sport and activity back in a safe and positive way after Covid-19.  

Boys, whose activity levels were most impacted during the pandemic, have largely driven the recovery (50% of boys are now doing an average of 60 minutes a day compared to 45% of girls).  

There are also some stats today which look at the types of activity that are growing for girls. For example, 100,000 more girls are playing football regularly compared to when we started the survey in 2017, and this is even before the massive visibility boost for the game during this year's UEFA European Women's Football Championship.

In another positive story for girls, the figures show that secondary-aged girls are now more active than at any point since the survey began in the 2017-18 academic year, aided in part by our investments including Studio You, free video-based PE lessons for girls aged 13-16 powered by the This Girl Can campaign.  

The activity levels from the Active Lives CYP 2021-22 report showing 30.1% are less active, 22.7% are fairly active and 47.2% are active

Alongside the growth in the number of active children, the number of less active children, those doing less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day, has decreased by 143,000 (2.3%). 

However, there is an increase in the number of children and young people doing no activity at all in the previous seven days, up by a quarter of a million (3.3%) since pre-pandemic. 

Interestingly, the recovery is not universal with primary-aged children, specifically those in School Years 3-4 (ages 7-9) and Black boys of primary ages not yet back at pre-pandemic levels. 

Those from low affluence families are still less likely to be active than those from high affluence (42% compared to 52%) and children and young people going to school in the most deprived places in the country have not seen activity recover to pre-pandemic levels. They are also less likely to say they have positive attitudes towards sport and physical activity, and they have lower wellbeing scores. 

There are signs that certain interventions make a big difference. For example, the 12 locations around the country called the ‘Local Delivery Pilots’ that we've been investing in since 2017 to test and learn how to promote physical activity at a local level with a range of partners – many of which are in the most deprived places – have seen activity levels rise to 3.6% above pre-pandemic level.  

Mental health and physical literacy

The survey provides even more evidence of the benefits of getting active for mental health, with more children and young people getting active to help with their mental wellbeing, with a significant increase in the proportion of those exercising to relax and worry less (up 1.2%), and socially for fun with friends (up 2.1%). Those with higher activity levels continue to have higher levels of wellbeing. 

Active children and young people are more likely to be happy and less likely to feel lonely often or always than those who are less active.  

Overall, levels of wellbeing for children and young people, including happiness, life satisfaction and worthwhileness are still down. With cost-of-living pressures and young people still bearing the brunt of Covid-19, supporting children and young people to be active and play sport has never been more important. 

Physical literacy is the foundation for movement, and we measure it by the number of positive attitudes that children have towards sport and physical activity like enjoyment, confidence, competence, understanding and knowledge.

However, physical literacy levels have not recovered to pre-pandemic rates and fewer children are reporting each of the positive attitudes.

Since physically literate children are more likely to be active and have higher levels of mental wellbeing, it's vital that there is a focus on providing positive experiences with fun and choice offered, and children involved in decisions around design and delivery. 

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

It is encouraging to see that activity levels for children and young people have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. This is thanks to everyone involved in the sport and physical activity sector, from teachers, volunteers, parents and carers and not least the children themselves.

This overall growth is positive but there’s more to do to help children and young people from all backgrounds enjoy the benefits of sport and physical activity.

We’re seeing success through Sport England’s programmes like our Secondary School Teacher Training programme to upskill PE teachers in how to promote sport and PE throughout school, and Studio You, the free video-based PE lessons for girls aged 13-16 powered by the This Girl Can campaign. It is great also to see that activity levels are higher in our Local Delivery Pilot areas, where the emphasis is on ‘whole system’ responses to generating opportunities for sport and activity.

But we have a long way to go still to change the overall level to where it needs to be. That’s why we will advocate for children and young people, particularly those facing inequalities and less likely to take part in sport and physical activity, to be given a voice in decisions which affect their experiences to help ensure that those experiences are positive.

We will also continue to work with other key stakeholders like the Department for Education to ensure that sport and physical activity is better recognised and prioritised in schools as a key enabler of children’s mental and physical wellbeing.

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

Types of activities

Many of the activities that children and young people are doing more of, both outside of and during school hours, such as team sports, dance, gym or fitness, take place within group settings. This indicates there is a social element to the recovery of activity levels.  

The report shows that, as children and young people get older, their activity preferences change. 

Active play (62%), team sports (58%) and active travel (57%) are the most common activities done in the last week across all children and young people. 

Team sports are less common amongst infant age children (Years 1-2, ages 5-7) but gain in relative importance with age. Taking part in gym or fitness sessions also become more common as children get older.  

Conversely, going for a walk, dance, and swimming are all more prevalent among the youngest children (Years 1-2, ages 5-7). 

  • Activity trends

    Dance, gym or fitness and active travel all increased during the pandemic and, while there has been some fall back in the last 12 months, these increases have largely been retained and these activities remain more popular now than they did before Covid-19 struck.  

    Over the last 12 months there has been a significant bounce back in the number of children and young people taking part in active play and informal activity (+6.2% year on year), team sports (8.4%), gymnastics, trampolining or cheerleading (+3.2%), and swimming (+12.3%). 

    However, while this recovery is notable, the proportions taking part all remain below pre-pandemic levels. Active play and informal activity remain 2.8% down compared with 2018-19, team sports (-3.3%), gymnastics, trampolining or cheerleading (-3.9%), and swimming (-5.6%). 

    The proportion of children and young people going for a walk increased substantially during the pandemic so it’s unsurprising that this has fallen back. Levels do however remain above pre-pandemic (academic year 2018-19) by 3.9%. 

    Running, athletics and multi-sports levels have fallen back sharply compared to 12 months ago and, as such, are now 6.2% below pre-pandemic.  

    Going on a bike ride stayed fairly stable across the period of the pandemic, however we have now seen a drop (-4.4%), across all age groups. 

    Read less
  • Swimming

    Swimming levels remain 5.6% below pre-pandemic. And just 72% of children in Year 7 (first year of secondary school, ages 11-12) meet the guidelines 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. This is a further drop of 4.0% compared to 12 months ago and now sits 6.3% below pre-pandemic.  

    Generally, swimming proficiency increases with age and an average of 58% of all children and young people in Years 1-11 (ages 5-16) can swim 25m unaided. Only young people in Years 9-11 (ages 13-16) have not seen their ability to swim 25m fall below pre-pandemic levels. Pupils are being offered fewer swimming lessons at school.  

    Pupils are being offered fewer swimming lessons at school. Teachers in 30% of state primary schools told us that they offered fewer than 10 lessons per pupil across academic year 2021-22 (the equivalent of weekly sessions for half a term), up 8.2% compared to academic year 2017-18. Those offering 10+ sessions fell by 9.6% over the same period.

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Big talking points

A child or young person's ethnicity, gender and family affluence all impact how likely they are to be physically active. 

  • Ethnicity

    Activity levels are back in line with those seen pre-pandemic (academic year 2018-19) for all ethnic groups with the exception of Black children and young people.  

    This is specifically among Black boys where, despite a notable increase compared to 12 months ago, they remain 7.7% lower than pre-pandemic. The gender gap remains widest between Asian girls and boys (10%) followed by Black (8%) and Other (8%) children and young people. 

    Children and young people of Black, Mixed and Other ethnicities are driving the drops in positive attitudes towards sport and physical activity levels. 

    Black girls have seen notable drops in both enjoyment (-7.5%) and knowledge (-8.6%) compared to pre-pandemic (academic year 2018-19). 

    Girls of Mixed ethnicities have seen a large drop in enjoyment (-6.7%) and confidence (-7.8%), whereas boys have a large drop in competence (-4.7%).  

    Read less
  • Gender

    Boys have driven the recovery in activity levels, with the proportion active now back in line with pre-pandemic (academic year 2018-19). Girls continue to see limited change overall, although levels are slightly above pre-pandemic (up 1.9% or 98,000 more active girls). As a result the gender gap between boys and girls has reemerged, with a gap of 5% between them in the proportion active. 

    This overall picture masks some clear and important differences between age groups: 

    • The lack of recovery seen across children in Years 3-4 (ages 5-7) is seen for both boys and girls, but boys in school Years 5-6 (ages 7-9) have seen no recovery. 

    • Whilst secondary age boys are following the pattern seen here for boys overall, secondary age girls are showing some growth in activity levels. 

    • There is a much smaller gender gap amongst secondary age young people (School Years 7-11, ages 11-16) with just 2% between them. 

    • Girls are more likely to feel lonely than boys. 

    Read less
  • Family affluence

    All affluence groups have seen activity levels recover to pre-pandemic levels. 

    However, children and young people from the least affluent families are the least likely to be active with only 42% meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines compared to 52% of those from the most affluent families. 

    Despite an increase compared to 12 months ago, those going to school in the most deprived places have not seen activity recover to pre-pandemic (academic year 2018-19) levels with the proportion active remaining down by 2.8%.  

    As such, the gap in activity levels to those going to school in the least deprived places has widened. 

    Children and young people from the least affluent families have lower happiness levels (6.6 out of 10) than those from the most affluent families (7 out of 10).  

    Read less
  • Active travel

    Increases in active travel seen during the pandemic have been largely retained. 

    The proportion of children and young people walking, cycling or scootering to get to places (active travel) increased across academic year 2019-20, despite school settings being closed at points, indicating the importance of non-school active travel. These increases have been maintained over the last 12 months. 

    Currently, over half of all children and young people use active travel (walk, ride, scooter) to get to school, however two-fifths of journeys are taken by car.  

    Junior age children (Years 3-6, ages 7-11) are the most likely to be taken by car (49%) whilst secondary age young people (Years 7-11, ages 11-16) are the most likely to use public transport (23%). 

    During the height of the pandemic (academic year 2020-21) we saw a spike in those not travelling to school - this was due to remote learning - however all travel modes have returned to 2019-20 levels with less disruption seen across the most recent academic year. 

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Our work so far

We believe that physical activity is central to happy and healthy lives, and positive experiences at an early age help build the foundations for an active life. That’s why children and young people are a key focus of Uniting the Movement and our core work.    

Our 2022-25 implementation plan stresses the importance of creating positive experiences for children and young people that are created with opportunities designed around fun, inclusivity and safety, as well as choice. 

Practically, we’ve invested £13.5million into secondary teacher training, which has already benefited 75% (2,600) of secondary schools, helping teachers and schools better meet the needs of all children, especially those that don’t like PE. 

We’ve also invested £1.5m into Studio You, a ‘Netflix’ style digital platform designed to help PE teachers engage the least active girls through non-traditional online activity sessions, such as dance, combat and yoga. 

Launched in 2021, the platform is free to all secondary schools and almost half of secondary schools in England (48%) have signed up so far and it’s estimated Studio You has already reached more than 100,000 teenage girls (128,500). 

We’ve also backed the School Games with £19m worth of investment, ensuring many more youngsters get the chance to play competitive sport – so far there have been 2.6m opportunities with 75% of schools registered to take part thanks to a network of 450 School Games Organisers.  

A further £10.1m of Department for Education money has helped open school sports facilities outside of the school day, at weekends and during holidays, which is being deployed via Active Partnerships.  

We’ve also invested £1.9m of National Lottery funding into 11 Active Partnerships to work with their local primary schools to deliver the Daily Mile. More than 2,600 new schools have so far delivered the Daily Mile or an active mile as part of this work. 

Minister's comments

  • Sports Minister Stuart Andrew

    "It is very encouraging to see a surge of children and young people returning to enjoy the benefits of physical activity since the pandemic. But I am clear that more still needs to be done.  

    "Giving children the best start in life, and creating a welcoming environment to get into sport wherever they are, remains at the heart of what we stand for. That is why we are investing £230 million in grassroots facilities, and developing a bold new sports strategy.  

    "We will continue to work with Sport England to ensure every child has the access to the right facilities and opportunities both in and out of school, to achieve their 60 minutes of activity a day." 

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Further reading

Our chief strategy officer, Nick Pontefract, blogs on what the figures mean and what we're doing to provide children and young people with enjoyable experiences of sport and physical activity.

Read the blog

What's next?

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 20 April. It’ll cover the period from November 2021 to November 2022 and will give a detailed breakdown of activity levels since the end of all coronavirus restrictions.  

Additional information

Our Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, conducted by Ipsos, gives the most comprehensive overview of the sport and physical activity habits of children in England.    

It looks at the number of children taking part in a wide range of sport and physical activities (ranging from dance and scootering to active play and team sports) at moderate intensity.   

The report’s based on responses from, and on behalf of, more than 100,000 children aged 5-16 in England during the academic year 2021/2022, making it one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. 

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