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Coronavirus pandemic delays the reduction in 'the fairness gap'

Activity levels in England were on course to reach record highs before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, according to the latest Sport England Active Lives Adult Survey. In the early weeks of lockdown, findings show that disabled people were among groups disproportionately impacted. Activity Alliance responds to the results, and our fear for 'the fairness gap' between disabled and non-disabled people's activity.

Visually impaired man with an instructor

The findings, published today, cover the 12 months from mid-May 2019 to mid-May 2020. It includes the first seven weeks of lockdown restrictions imposed to prevent the disease from spreading.

The survey shows that the gains made in the first 10 months of the year were cancelled out by drops in activity levels during this period, despite an increase in cycling for leisure, running outside and exercising at home as people adapted their activity habits during the pandemic. Overall, activity levels in England remained stable across the 12 months.

To explain the survey’s results as clearly as possible, Sport England produced two reports.

The first covers the full 12 months up until mid-May, while the second is a snapshot of people’s behaviours and attitudes between mid-March and mid-May and covers the period when restrictions across the country were introduced. This report gives the most detailed insight yet into how people adapted their activity habits in the first few weeks of restrictions.

The reports show that more than 3 million people were less active between mid-March and mid-May compared to the same period a year before, and this demonstrates the extent to which people’s lives were disrupted.

They also highlight the importance of organised sport and access to facilities for specific groups, and that some groups found it more difficult to adapt to the new regulations than others.

Disabled people, people aged 70 and over, people with long-term health conditions and people from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups were disproportionately impacted.

During lockdown

In lockdown itself, positive government messages about getting outside once a day for exercise played an important role in reminding people about the importance of activity for their health.

Today’s report paints a picture of a nation doing its best to stay active despite the challenges to their daily lives, with people turning to home-based fitness, running and cycling in great numbers. 

Walking was the most popular overall activity in the early weeks from mid-March, with more than 21 million adults walking at moderate intensity, while outdoor running was also popular. 

The report also shows that the number of people cycling for leisure or sport increased from 6.1m to 7.2m (+2.5%) from mid-March to mid-May compared to the same period 12 months prior. As cycling for travel was down by 773,000 (-1.7%), the number of people cycling in total was up by 715,000 (+1.5%) overall.

Exercising at home also saw a boom compared to the same two-month period in 2019, as people were encouraged to get active indoors, with people like Joe Wicks proving inspirational. 

Fitness classes also moved online while people got active at home in other ways, in the garden with their families or through activities like dance. Overall, over the two-month period, there was an increase in home exercise of 2.1m and this was largely driven by women.

Join the Movement, the £3.5m National Lottery-funded campaign, encouraged people to #StayInWorkout. Activity Alliance supported the campaign with active at home resources, including powerful blogs from disabled people. This all played an important role in helping to motivate and provide guidance on how to find free, accessible activities for all ages and abilities.

People with impairments and long-term health conditions

  • This group were becoming more active before lockdown. Over the last three years there’s been a 3.7% rise in the activity levels of this group, with more than 400,000 additional people classed as active.
  • Between mid-March and mid-May, a number within this group were advised to shield. Disabled people experienced a larger increase in inactivity levels during this period. The proportion of disabled people who did less than 30 minutes of activity a week rose by 10.3%, compared to 7.1% for non-disabled people. This increased to 11.2% for those with 3 or more impairments.

Sport England’s Chief Executive, Tim Hollingsworth, said the reports reveal a picture of both the ongoing growth in activity levels across England before the pandemic and people's determination to keep active even when they could only leave their homes once a day:

“Though the early months of lockdown brought unprecedented disruption to our lives and had a huge impact on our overall engagement in sport and physical activity, it is also positive to see how many people turned to new activities like cycling, fitness at home and running,” he added. 
"It also highlights the challenges this year has brought to those groups who already find it harder than most to be active, with disabled people, people with health conditions and younger people struggling, reminding us of the importance of educational settings, community leisure facilities and team sports that underpin access to activity for so many people across England. 
"As facilities have reopened and  activities have restarted, great credit is due to those who are out there working incredibly hard ensuring people can return to the sports and activities they love, and though we know the winter months will bring additional challenges, with government support we will continue to support our sector through our funding, our insight and our campaigns."

Barry Horne, Activity Alliance’s Chief Executive on the latest Active Lives report:

“We know that the pandemic is magnifying many inequalities that already existed for disabled people before we went into lockdown. But it is alarming to see the early stages of impact of Covid-19 on disabled people’s activity in this latest report. It is especially disappointing after previously starting to see a rise in disabled people’s activity levels.
“These findings show that our work and that of partners has never been more important. Inactivity among disabled people increased significantly more than non-disabled people. Activity Alliance calls that ‘the fairness gap’, and that gap looks set to get bigger, as the impact of the pandemic continues. Alongside our members, we are committed to enabling disabled people to be active and are more determined than ever to close the fairness gap.”

Other findings


  • Activity levels amongst people aged 55 and over were increasing before the pandemic – over the last three years, activity levels for this group has risen by over 1.3m.
  • However, in the two months from mid-March, with people aged 70 and over asked to shield, the drop for this overall age group was proportionally greater than all other age groups (down 1.1m/7.2%).
  • The proportion of active 16-34-year-olds dropped by 10% (1.4m) in these two months, likely due to their reliance on the activities that were not available in this period and the closure of school and further education settings, which are now open, reflecting a downward trend more generally of activity levels in this age group. 

Socio-economic groups

  • People in lower-socio economic groups saw significant drops in activity overall and the gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups widened during these first weeks from mid-March.


  • While the gender gap was still an issue leading up to the pandemic, in the two months from mid-March many women adjusted well to getting active at home, evidenced by the fact the numbers of people doing fitness activities remained relatively steady as people switched from doing gym classes to home classes – helped by providers and trainers who diversified and moved their offerings online. Our This Girl Can campaign continues to contribute to helping them with support and resources. 
  • Men suffered a greater drop in activity levels (-1.8m) compared to women (-1.2m) in those early weeks – a reflection that men are more likely to take part in team and racket sports than women, both of which were not permitted. 

Looking ahead

More recent data, collected for Sport England by Savanta ComRes, shows how important sport and activity restarting and leisure facilities reopening in recent weeks has been.

While the pandemic is still significantly affecting activity habits, there’s evidence that the number of people swimming and doing team sports is slowly rising as some start to return to the activities they did before. For example, the number of people swimming in September doubled compared to August, though the numbers of people swimming is down overall still.

This is especially important for the 16-34-year-olds, whose activity levels dropped significantly in early lockdown.

Visit Sport England's latest Active Lives Survey report