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Our response to latest Sport England Active Lives Survey

Sport England’s latest Active Lives Adult Survey highlights where and how resources should be focused. It also shows that getting active can play a role in boosting the nation’s fitness, wellbeing, and economic recovery from coronavirus. 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. Activity Alliance responds to the latest Survey and our concern that there are widening inequalities for disabled people.

Young man riding adapted bike with supporter during a cycling session in the park

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

The latest Sport England 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. The 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. 

Tim Hollingsworth, Chief Executive at Sport England, said:

"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.

"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."

Existing inequalities widened 

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. People living in deprived areas and urban areas also found it harder to be active. 

The data shows that the pandemic has led to a larger increase in inactivity levels for disabled people compared non-disabled people.

Inactivity levels

  • 43% (4.1 million) disabled people were inactive (doing less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week), compared to 23% of non-disabled people.
  • This is a 2.7% increase from 40.4% in the May 2019-May 2020 period, meaning 272,000 more disabled people were inactive. This increase was higher than for non-disabled people. This group saw a 1.6% rise in inactivity levels (from 21.4% to 23%).

The fairness gap

Activity Alliance measures the fairness gap by the difference between the number of inactive disabled people and the number of inactive non-disabled people. Since Active Lives began, the fairness gap had been decreasing – indicating sport and physical activity was becoming fairer for disabled people. In May 2016-17 the fairness gap was 22.3%, and by May 2019-20 it had decreased to 19%.

However, the latest data shows the fairness gap has increased to 20% (a 1% rise). This shows that despite inactivity increasing for both disabled and non-disabled adults, there is a clear inequality in the ability to be active for disabled people.

Barry Horne, Chief Executive at Activity Alliance, said:

"The findings are stark and show that many disabled people could be left behind unless greater support is given. Many disabled people have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that activity levels have declined. What is most worrying is that disabled people aren’t returning to sport and physical activity in the same way that other groups in society have.
"We are concerned that the latest data shows the fairness gap has increased. If we are to ensure genuine fairness for disabled people in sport and activity, we cannot let disabled people be forgotten. We look forward to leading the discussion across sport and leisure to ensure that absolutely everybody in society is given the opportunity to be active."

Tackling these inequalities is a key feature of our Achieving Fairness strategy and Sport England’s Uniting the Movement. 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. 

Sports Minister, Nigel Huddleston, said:

"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."

Change over the year

Looking at the data from across the year, inactivity levels were highest for both disabled and non-disabled people during Jan – March 2021. This was during the last National lockdown. During this period, 45% of disabled people were doing less than 30 minutes of activity a week in this period.

However, the fairness gap was highest in the first period of ending restrictions in May-July 2020. 43.8% of disabled people were inactive compared to 22.8% of non-disabled people, resulting in a fairness gap of 21%.

The latest period of ending restrictions in Mar-May 2021 again shows an increase in the fairness gap (to 20.4%). This suggests that disabled people are less likely to be taking advantage of opportunities to be active once restrictions are lifting.

Number of impairments

Inactivity increases with the number of impairments a person has. The pandemic has led to increases in activity for all impairment groups compared to the previous 12-month period. 

  • 6% of people with 1 impairment were inactive (2.8% increase from 30.8%)
  • 2% of people with 2 impairments were inactive (3.3% increase from 37.9%)
  • 7% of people with 3 impairments were inactive (1.7% increase from (49%).

About the survey

Data from over 172,970 adults in England was collected between May 2020 and May 2021 using an online and paper questionnaire. This data contains information from a full year of coronavirus restrictions.

Read more about the latest Active Lives survey

Other useful resources