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The impact of coronavirus on activity levels revealed

Our Active Lives Adult Survey shows the impact of the first eight months of coronavirus on activity levels, which activities grew in popularity and which audiences struggled.

29th April 2021

The majority of physically active adults in England managed to maintain their habits despite the challenges of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, according to our latest Active Lives Adult Survey, with just 710,000 fewer active adults between November 2019 and November 2020 compared to the same period 12 months previously.   

However, the first eight months of coronavirus restrictions, as well as the storms that had a huge impact on outdoor activity in early 2020, also led to a worrying increase in the number of people who were inactive  doing less than 30 minutes of activity a week or nothing at all. 

A woman playing football in the park

Our report, which we’ve published today, shows that while the restrictions associated with the pandemic had an unprecedented impact on activity levels, thanks in part to the support of the sport and physical activity sector, many people were able to adapt and find ways to return to activity as restrictions eased.   

Not all groups or demographics were affected equally though, with women, young people aged 16-24, over 75s, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, and those from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds most negatively impacted beyond the initial lockdown period. 

Today’s findings also show how people's relationship with sport and physical activity changed across the various different phases of coronavirus restrictions, who returned to activity once restrictions eased, and who didn’t.  

The information available will be beneficial to the sport and physical activity sector as restrictions continue to ease this summer and as the weather improves and consumer confidence increases due to the vaccine rollout.  

A chart from the Active Lives Adult Survey November 2019-20 showing activity levels of England

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: 

The scale of disruption  

The pandemic led to unprecedented decreases in activity levels during the initial restrictions and, as a result, the latest annual results show the following changes compared to 12 months earlier: 

  • 710,000 (-1.9%) fewer active adults meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of taking part in 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, taking the total number of active adults to 27.9 million (61.4% of the population) 
  • 1.2m (+2.6%) more inactive adults taking part in less than an average of 30 minutes a week, taking the total number of inactive adults in England to 12.3m (27.1% of the population).   

This, however, masks the scale of the changes seen during the impacted months.  

Activity levels were hit hardest during the initial phase of the pandemic (the national lockdown between mid-March and mid-May) and the proportion of the population classed as active dropped by 7.1% – or by just over 3m fewer active adults – compared to the 12 months before.  

During the second phase, as restrictions were eased, activity levels were still down compared to the previous 12 months, but the reductions were smaller, with 4.4%/2.0m fewer active adults across mid-May to mid-July and 3.1%/1.4m fewer active adults across mid-July to mid-September. 

In the third phase of the pandemic, as new restrictions were imposed but before the full impact of the new national lockdown in November was felt, activity levels decreased by 1.8% and there were 810,000 fewer active adults. 

There were patterns in the way that different groups and demographics responded to the easing of restrictions, however, with women less likely to return to activity than men. See below for more information on how the impact of the pandemic varied across different demographic groups.  

a graphic showing the timeline of coronavirus restrictions

How people reacted  

Restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus had a profound impact on the types of activities – and the form they could take – that were available between mid-March and mid-November.  

Whilst the restrictions severely limited the ability to take part in some activities such as walking for travel (-4.2m over the 12 months in those reporting taking part at least twice in the last 28 days), swimming (-1.8m) and team sports (-940k), we can also see the significant attempts of the population to find alternatives through increases in activities like walking for leisure (+1.3m), running (+470k) and cycling for leisure and sport (+1.2m). 

Although at home exercise was encouraged, and the numbers of people working out at home increased significantly, it was not enough to offset the lost gym environment (-1.9m) and drop in those taking part in team sports (-940k). 

How we’ve helped 

Throughout the pandemic our twin aims have been to support the sport and physical activity sector to keep going, and to keep the nation active by directly influencing consumers through our campaigns.  

Join the Movement, our £3.5m National Lottery-funded and award-winning campaign launched two weeks after the first Covid-19 restrictions to help people to stay active during the pandemic, and has played a key role in helping to motivate and provide guidance on how to find free, accessible activities. 

The campaign reached 37 million people between April and June and 45% of adults say they recognise the campaign, almost half (47%) of whom increased their physical activity level or effort as a result of seeing it. 

We’ve also supported the sector financially with over £230m of funding, including our Community Emergency Fund and various Return to Play funding options that are helping keep sports clubs and activity providers going through this very difficult period. 

Our investment also includes our £20m Tackling Inequalities Fund that’s designed to help specific groups disproportionately impacted by the restrictions.  

During the 2020-21 financial year we released more than £414m of grant funding, a 60% increase on the previous year, in 13,170 individual grant payments. 

As of today, we’ve also updated our Return to Play Fund’s criteria to encourage more applications from groups and clubs that support people aged over 70 and from the 16-34 age group.In addition to funding, we also offered the sector advice and practical resources, while we worked with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure the guidance as to what was and wasn’t allowed at different stages was communicated effectively to activity providers as well as the general public. This work supported the return of sport as one of the government’s key priorities as restrictions eased.  

We also published a range of toolkits and resources to help sports clubs and physical activity groups to continue to function and engage with their members while their usual activities were restricted.  

We know the pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s ability to engage in sport and physical activity, but the reality is it could have been worse. It is encouraging to see in the survey that so many still found ways to be active despite the majority of opportunities being unavailable or severely restricted.  

Alongside the support that we were able to offer, the response of the sector has been remarkable, and I pay tribute to everyone who has worked so hard to keep sport and physical activity going despite the most challenging situation of our lifetime.

However, today’s report has also reminded us that not everyone has been impacted equally and we owe it to the groups disproportionately affected – women, young people, disabled people, people with a long-term health condition, and those from a Black or Asian background in particular – to do everything we can to help them to return to activity in the coming weeks and months.

In particular, the decline in activity levels in the 16-24 age group is of major concern - helping and inspiring young people to re-engage with sport and physical activity has now to be a number one priority not just for Sport England but for us all.

The report has also shown that, while new and more informal forms of physical activity are a great option for many, the role that organised sports and teams and our gyms and pools up and down the country play is still absolutely vital – not least in connecting our communities and reaffirming the social bonds we all need. The government understands this and we will continue to work closely with them to ensure the sport and physical activity sector remains a priority on the roadmap to reopening.

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

Demographic variations

  • Age

    Activity levels fell for both the 16-34 and 35-54 age groups compared to 12 months ago. 

    This continues the downward trend seen before the pandemic for the 16-34 age group, with the proportion who are active having fallen a further 2.6%/410k compared to the previous 12 months. Within this, it’s the 16-24 age group particularly driving the decreases. 

    Activity levels had been growing strongly amongst the 55-74 and 75+ age groups prior to the coronavirus pandemic, however, many of these gains have been lost as activity levels fell notably when restrictions were introduced. 

    The 75+ age group (-2.9%) were particularly affected, and this may be linked to the requirement for many of those aged 70+ to shield during the earlier stages of the pandemic. This group have, so far, shown no real sign of recovery and it indicates this group may need additional support to recover activity levels. 

    A brief overview of how we’re helping: We invested a further £1.64m into our portfolio of ‘Active Ageing’ partners to support even more older people to stay active during lockdown and as restrictions started to lift. This has been complemented by a further £2.28m distributed through our Tackling Inequalities Fund to support more than 550 local community projects that are working to reduce the negative impact of coronavirus and the widening of the inequalities in sport and physical activity for older adults.   

    We teamed up with the Youth Sport Trust to develop a new online resource that’ll help more children be physically active. The Active Recovery Hub, which has been funded by the National Lottery, provides schools, local authorities, and families with easy access to free resources that’ll help more children reach the Chief Medical Officer's target of taking part in 60 minutes of physical activity a day. 

    We’re also launching Studio You, a new digital platform for secondary schools that’ll give PE teachers across England access to a free digital library of video-based lessons. It’s been created with teachers and young people to inspire less physically literate students to feel confident and comfortable being active at school. 

    Case study: We developed a partnership with the BBC to broadcast 10 Today nationally across its radio and online platforms during lockdowns. The programme, which offers simple and engaging 10-minute daily workouts for older audiences to do at home, is also available on community radio stations and via leaflets for those who don’t have access to digital radio. 

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  • Gender

    Both men (-2.4%) and women (-1.4%) saw decreases in activity levels over the year as a whole. However, while male activity levels dropped by a larger amount in the initial lockdown between mid-March to mid-May (-8.9% versus –5.4%) they recovered more quickly, while female activity levels remained consistently lower than 12 months earlier.  

    For example, female activity levels were down 2.8% between mid-September and mid-November compared to the same period the year before, while activity levels for men recorded no change.  

    This indicates that, despite their activity levels initially seeming more resilient to the pandemic, women who’ve seen their activity levels fall may take longer and require more support to return. 

    A brief overview of how we’re helping: This Girl Can is our nationwide campaign to get women and girls moving, regardless of shape, size and ability. The campaign has focused on at home activities during the pandemic and the This Girl Can community has helped women to encourage each other to stay active despite the challenges of coronavirus restrictions. Studio You, which we’re developing to help young people get more active, will also play an especially vital role in helping girls to be active at school. 

    Case study: Angelique on overcoming cancer and coronavirus and how it’s taught her to value her health and happiness even more. 

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  • Socio-economic groups

    Activity levels fell amongst all socio-economic groups compared to the same period a year ago.  

    However, the fall was larger for those from lower socio-economic groups (-2.1%) than those from higher groups (-0.9%) and as such, the inequalities we were already seeing have widened. 

    Both higher and lower socio-economic groups saw the largest drops during the initial lockdown period (mid-March to mid-May), in accordance with the national picture.  

    A brief overview of how we’re helping: Our Tackling Inactivity and Economic Disadvantage programme is funding 35 projects to work with a diverse range of inactive people in different community settings. The types of projects funded vary from late-night physical activity sessions for shift-workers in Manchester, to a programme of activity sessions at a women’s refuge charity in Yorkshire. Some of our local delivery pilots are specifically focused on how to support communities in some of the most deprived areas in the country. 

    Case study: Active Parks uses local city parks and greenspaces to create opportunities for Birmingham’s residents to take part in a wide range of physical activities to improve their health and wellbeing. In total, 81% of those taking part were from the two most deprived areas of the city. 

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  • Ethnicity

    The impact of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those of Asian and Black backgrounds and, as such, inequalities that already existed have widened.  

    White British activity levels fell by 1.5% compared to the previous 12 months, while Black and Asian (excluding Chinese) fell by 4.5% and 4.4% respectively.  

    A brief overview of how we’re helping: We’re working in partnership with a variety of organisations across sectors who know and understand the specific audiences we want to target, including partners who we’ve traditionally not worked with. Our Tacking Inequalities Fund has worked with our network of Active Partnerships and our national partners to prioritise investment into projects that have been able to make an immediate impact on the ground.  

    Case study: Michelle on how she stayed active despite spending lockdown in a one-bedroom flat

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  • Disabled people and people with long-term health conditions

    Decreases were the greatest during the initial lockdown phase amongst both those with and without a disability or long-term health condition – in line with the national picture.

    The scale of drops was slightly greater for disabled people or people with a long-term health condition (for example, 8.2% compared to 7.3% during the period mid-March to mid-May compared to the same period 12 months before), which may be attributed to the requirement for those with health conditions to shield. 

    A brief overview of how we’re helping: From focusing on social inclusions through education to supporting people with complex communication needs, we’re working with a range of partners to help more disabled people get active. We’ve also a lead partner in the We Are Undefeatable campaign to support the 15 million people who live with one or more long-term health conditions in England to build physical activity into their lives. 

    Case study: Diabetic Mahesh on how he has been able to get active at home and in his garden while shielding. 

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Minister's comments

  • Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston

    "The past year has undoubtedly been a difficult one for our mental and physical health but, throughout the pandemic, we have prioritised the early return of grassroots sport and exercise at every stage.

    "We have provided unprecedented levels of financial support to the sector, through our Sport Survival Package, the Leisure Recovery Fund and through Sports England's support for grassroots sports.

    "I'm really encouraged with how people have adapted and stayed active, and would continue to urge everyone to stay fit and healthy as society begins to reopen and we get back to the sports we love."

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What's next?

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 21 October. It’ll cover the period from May 2020 to May 2021 and, as such, will reflect 12 months of restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus – including the November 2020 and January-March 2021 national lockdowns.  

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-MORI and produced by us in collaboration with Arts Council England, Public Health England and the Department for Transport.

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