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A time for celebration, but not dancing - yet

With the publication of the latest Active Lives Adult Survey, our chief strategy officer blogs on the significance of the return to pre-pandemic activity levels and why now is the time to re-double our work addressing the inequalities sitting behind the headline figures.

20th April 2023

by Nick Pontefract
Chief strategy officer, Sport England

Our latest Active Lives Adult Survey shows that, overall, activity levels have returned to where they were prior to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic – when they were already at a record high.

This is news for all those involved in sport and physical activity to celebrate.

We can all still recall the impact the pandemic, and the restrictions that came with it, on our lives and for lots of us, on our activity levels. While we could get out for a walk or a bike ride, pretty much every other activity was impacted massively.

So, the recovery of adult activity levels back to pre-pandemic levels so quickly was not to be taken for granted and, as I wrote in my welcome note to today’s report, is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the sport and physical activity sector – from volunteers at small organisations up and down the country, to councils working to keep leisure centres open.

But we’re not dancing in the aisles at Sport England HQ yet. Why? Because behind that positive headline figure sits a mixed picture, and some worrying long term trends that started before the pandemic.

Yes, 29.1 million people are meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of 150+ minutes a week of activity, but at the same time there are 11.9m inactive people – 1.2% more than before the pandemic.

This news for all those involved in sport and physical activity to celebrate.

And we’re still seeing gaps in activity levels based on:

  • Gender – 65.6% of males active vs. 60.8% of women
  • Affluence – 72.6% of the most affluent are active, compared to 52.7% of the least affluent
  • Ethnicity – 67% of ‘White Other’ people are active vs. 55% of those identifying as ‘Other ethnic group’
  • Age – activity levels are falling for 16-34-year-olds, while they’re on the rise for older adults
  • Whether a person has a disability or long-term health condition – 68.1% of people who don’t, are active, compared to 47.5% for those that do.

These results show that while sport and physical activity is easy and accessible for many people, for millions it is not – these groups are our focus in the years ahead and, working collectively as a movement of thousands of organisations, we have the ability to make sport easy, accessible and enjoyable for everyone.  

How we’re moving

Looking beyond levels of activity, there are also some interesting changes in how people are choosing to get active.

While there has been a reduction in the number of people walking for leisure compared to the previous year (after consecutive years of growth), other types of activity have seen big increases. The number of people participating in team sports and swimming in the past 12 months has increased significantly, reflecting the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, and how big an impact they had on participation rates throughout the pandemic.

However, while team sport levels are now back to those seen pre-pandemic, swimming levels (3.8m people swimming at least twice in the last 28 days) are still below what they were prior to coronavirus restrictions being implemented (4.2m) and even further behind the 4.9m from the first year of Active Lives.

We’ve also seen active travel (e.g. walking or cycling to work or to the shops) levels recovering significantly after big drops during the pandemic – though not returning to their pre-pandemic levels, perhaps reflecting the increase in days many people spend working from home.

What next?

All these figures, the positives and the negatives, show why our Uniting the Movement strategy is so vital.

We know that our staff didn’t just wave a magic wand and all of a sudden the public decided to go out and be active again. We know that, in reality, it was the sport and physical activity sector that made this recovery possible.

Which is what the first year of Uniting the Movement was targeted at – responding to the challenges of the time, transforming the way we work, planning for the coming years of our strategy and transitioning from our past work into targeting our new goals. But the biggest change is doing that together, building a genuine movement, working together towards the same goals.

Today’s results show that how we all responded to the pandemic helped activity levels to recovery quickly overall – but that now is the time to re-double our work to address the inequalities that sit below these headline figures.

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