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Sport and physical activity must be used to level up and tackle inequalities

Our Active Lives Adult Survey highlights where and how resources should be focused, and that getting active can play a role in boosting the nation’s fitness, wellbeing, and economic recovery from coronavirus.

21st October 2021

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on activity levels throughout England, but has been most acute across disadvantaged groups and areas of high deprivation. 

Our latest Active Lives Adult Survey, published today, covers the period from mid-May 2020 to mid-May 2021, which includes periods of national and tiered restrictions introduced to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Our survey period ends before all restrictions were eased in July. 

Compared to 12 months earlier, there were 700,000 (-1.9%) fewer active adults and 1 million (+2%) more inactive adults between mid-May 2020 and mid-May 2021. 

Two women enjoying a walk

Existing inequalities have widened 

While there are signs of recovery for activity levels as restrictions have eased, not all groups or demographics are affected or recovering at the same rate.  

Existing inequalities have been widened, with some groups hit much harder by the pandemic than others. This is the case for women, young people aged 16-34, over 75s, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, and those from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. Those living in deprived areas and also those in urban areas found it harder to be 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: 

A graph showing physical activity levels in England during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

Tackling these inequalities is already a focus for us and is a key feature of our strategy, Uniting the Movement, and these results build an even more solid evidence base for why this work is needed and where resources and efforts should be focused. 

We know that getting active can play a role in boosting the nation’s physical health and their mental wellbeing – the most active people in England have the highest levels of mental wellbeing.  

This is important since overall levels of happiness have declined across the population during the pandemic, with loneliness and anxiety rising.  

Sport and physical activity has a role to play in supporting economic recovery from the pandemic too. Existing research already shows that for every £1 spent on sport and physical activity, nearly £4 is generated for the English economy and society. Therefore, sport and physical activity can support the goal of levelling up communities and supporting the most disadvantaged people in society. 

This latest Active Lives research paints a stark but unsurprising picture of activity levels throughout England. The decline, which is right across the board, ties in with when coronavirus-related restrictions were introduced and access, opportunity and the capability to exercise were all massively curtailed.

What is more concerning is that certain groups – those who have historically found it more difficult to access activity – were disproportionately impacted. And we know that once habits are broken, they are often harder to restart.

The good news is that through our work to sustain the sports and physical activity sector during the pandemic, combined with the research and analysis that underpins our 10-year strategy, Uniting the Movement, we understand the scale and nature of the challenge.
Sport England’s absolute focus is using our resources, advocacy and network to target communities – places and people – where raising activity levels will have the greatest affect.

It is clear that the benefits of activity don’t just manifest themselves physically; the mental health and wellbeing of people is boosted, communities become more cohesive, and the economic impact creates added value locally and nationally, as well helping individual employment prospects.

Sport England’s challenge now, working collaboratively with all our stakeholders, is to build on the work we have already started and ensure that sport and physical activity is central to tackling the inequalities in our communities, and create a movement that genuinely delivers for all.

Tim Hollingsworth

Chief executive, Sport England

Minister's comments

  • Sports Minister - Nigel Huddleston

    "These figures underline the fundamental role that sport and exercise play right across the country, supporting our physical and mental health, and bringing communities together. 

    "Throughout the pandemic we provided an unprecedented £1 billion of financial support to ensure the survival of the sport and leisure sector.

    "Now that it has reopened, we've been clear that physical activity will remain a vital part of our recovery plan. We want every child to have access to 60 minutes of physical activity a day, and adults to do at least 2.5 hours a week.

    "With additional government funding committed to grassroots sport pitches, public tennis courts and opening up school sport facilities, we are determined to give everyone the chance to participate, tackle obesity and encourage adults and young people to have more active lives."

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How we've helped

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 helping keep sports clubs and activity providers going through this 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’ve launched our new £20m Together Fund that builds on the work of our £20m Tackling Inequalities Fund and our campaigns Join the MovementThis 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’ll launch a three-year plan for the steps we’re taking to realise the ambitions in Uniting the Movement, and 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. 

What happened to activity levels overall?

Compared to 12 months earlier, there were 700,000 (-1.9%) fewer active adults and 1m (+2%) more inactive adults between mid-May 2020 and mid-May 2021. 

There’s a clear correlation between falls in activity levels during the pandemic and restrictions, with activity levels dropping as sport and physical activity settings were closed and choice was restricted. 

Activity levels throughout the period were consistently lower than pre-pandemic, but the drops were less pronounced as restrictions eased and activity levels started to rise. 

In mid-March to mid-May 2021, there was a partial recovery in activity levels. However, the numbers of people taking part in sport or physical activity remain 4.1% (1.6m) down compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 across the same time period. 

There’s evidence activity levels will start to go back up, but this may be impacted by the nervousness of the population, a perception of lost fitness and conditioning making a return feel difficult, and the extent to which permanent habits have been broken. 

A graphic showing the timeline of coronavirus restrictions


The report is the first time we’ve been able to compare what happened to activity levels during each of the national lockdowns. 

Interestingly, the 2021 winter lockdown (mid-Jan to mid-March 2021) didn’t have as negative an impact on activity levels as the first national lockdown – helped by the fact restrictions weren’t as tight – with activity down 5% between mid-January and mid-March 2021, compared to a fall of 7.1% between mid-March and mid-May 2020. 

This also suggests people had learned to adapt in the later lockdown by turning to walking, cycling and at-home activity, while resources produced by activity providers in the sport and physical activity sector helped support the continuation of habits. 

As restrictions eased, many people found ways to return to activity.  

The types of activity being undertaken

Adults on average are doing fewer activities since the pandemic began and as we recover, giving people choice will be crucial to helping levels rise. 

  • How did the pandemic change behaviour?

    Over the reporting period there were large increases in the numbers of people walking and cycling for leisure but large decreases across fitness, swimming, team sport and active travel. 

    Cycling for leisure or sport has seen increases year-on-year throughout, however, these increases have been gradually getting smaller as the pandemic has progressed – most likely as people have returned to their previous activities. Notably, in mid-March to mid-May 2021, numbers dropped to lower than the first full lockdown period. They do, however, remain up on the same period in 2019 (800,000). This indicates that, while momentum for cycling continues, there’s evidence that growth has slowed and rates may return to pre-pandemic levels.  

    Running or jogging saw more consistent gains across the period, however, similarly to cycling, numbers in mid-March to mid-May 2021 dropped lower than the first full lockdown period. In this period there’s no reportable difference to 2019. 

    Gym and fitness numbers were hit hard by the restrictions, however, when the gyms opened in July 2020, and again in April 2021, numbers did start to rise but are yet to recover since gyms were still running at limited capacity. 

    More generic fitness training (e.g. body weight exercises, skipping etc.) saw increases in the region of half a million consistently throughout the period. The increase seen in mid-March to mid-May 2020 has been maintained in 2021. Women have been equally likely to take part as men. 

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Demographic variations

  • Age

    The youngest and oldest age groups were most impacted by the pandemic.  

    Age 16-34 

    This age group has seen the greatest negative impact from the pandemic, with higher levels of anxiety and financial stresses, and lower activity levels. Despite some recovery as restrictions eased across mid-March to mid-May 2021, activity levels remain 6.0%/900,000 down on the same period in 2019 (pre-pandemic). 

    The decline is more pronounced for those aged 16-24. This has been driven, in part, by the highest drops in activity levels from students whose routines have been significantly impacted, while activity levels for those living alone were also down.  

    Furthermore, the activities this age group are most likely to be involved in, such as team sports, were most severely restricted for much of the 12-month period.  

    Perceived capability and enjoyment of sport and physical activity fell for this age group, which raises concerns for the long-term recovery.  

    Age 75+ 

    The 75+ group has also seen consistently large drops throughout the period with no real sign of recovery.  

    Furthermore, older adults relied heavily on walking for leisure to stay physically active.  

    With a significant fall in other activities, it suggests the older age group may need additional support to recover activity levels. Those aged 75+ also experienced the largest drops in both happiness and life worthwhileness. 


    Among those aged 35-54, the declines were larger among those without children or living alone. This suggests that that having a family or a partner helps to keep adults active. This notion is supported by the fact single people living alone aged 16-34 saw one of the biggest drops in activity levels during this time. 

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  • Gender

    Both men and women recorded sharp declines in activity levels as a result of the restrictions imposed.

    Across mid-May 2020 to mid-May 2021: 

    • 62.3%/13.8m men were active. This was 2.3%/500,000 fewer compared to 12 months earlier 

    • 59.8%/13.9m women were active. This was 1.4%/300,000 fewer compared to 12 months earlier. 

    Both men and women have followed the same broad pattern across the periods impacted by the pandemic. Within this, the following nuances are observed: 

    • Men again saw a larger drop during the early 2021 lockdown period  

    • Women’s activity levels remained more consistently lower than 12 months earlier, across the period 

    • Men have driven the partial recovery seen during mid-March to mid-May 2021. 

    However, younger men have been less likely to return than older males, so the sport and physical activity sector should not assume this group’s return can be taken for granted.  

    While women’s activity levels were more resistant during the national lockdowns, their return to activity has been slower. Women’s enjoyment of physical activity – an important driver for taking part – declined more than men’s and drops in life satisfaction and loneliness were greater for women. 

    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.  

    This indicates that women may require more support to return. 

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  • Socio-economic groups

    All socio-economic groups had their activity levels impacted by the pandemic. 

    However, while we can’t report a change compared to 12 months ago (May 2020) for those from the most deprived groups (routine/semi-routine jobs and those who are long-term unemployed or have never worked, NS-SEC 6-8), this is the only group to show a decrease compared to the November 2015-16 baseline (-2.7%). This reinforces the previously observed widening of existing inequalities. 

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  • Ethnicity

    The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Asian (excluding Chinese) adults, with men especially hard hit. Despite this, women of Black and Asian (excluding Chinese) ethnicities remain the least active and have the largest gender gap to males with the same ethnicity. 

    Just 52% of Black adults and 48% of Asian adults are meeting the Chief Medical Officer guidelines for activity levels compared to 61% of the whole population. 

    This could be down to a number of factors, including more hesitancy around Covid-19 and reduced opportunity.  

    The fact that adults from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to live in deprived, urban areas is also a factor as those from inner city areas were less likely to stay active during lockdown compared to those based in rural areas.    

    And, culturally diverse communities are more likely to have higher financial stresses like furlough and unemployment. 

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  • Disabled people and people with long-term health conditions

    Disabled adults and people with a long-term health condition remain less likely to be active than those without, with activity levels decreasing sharply the more impairments an individual has. 

    This gap was narrowing prior to the pandemic, however, Covid-19 has also been difficult for this group with an overall drop of 2.1%, compared to 12 months ago. 

    Even when restrictions started to ease, disabled people or people with a long-term health condition saw no recovery across mid-March to mid-May 2021, compared to the first full lockdown during the same period in 2020 – remaining 7.1% down on 2019. This is the primary difference with non-disabled adults who were far more likely to return.  

    This suggests many in this group may not return without additional support. 

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What's next?

We'll publish our next Active Lives Children and Young People Survey report, which will cover the 2020/21 academic year, on Thursday 9 December.

Our next Active Lives Adult Survey report will be published on Thursday 28 April. It’ll cover the period from November 2020 to November 2021 and, as such, will reflect some months of restrictions designed to combat the spread of coronavirus, as well as the easing of restrictions across spring and summer.   

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 the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, the Department for Transport and Arts Council England. 

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