Nearly 12 million adults in England did less than 30 minutes of exercise a week between mid-March and mid-May, the latest Sport England Active Lives survey has found, with the spring lockdown causing “unprecedented” falls in activity levels.
The proportion of the population classed as inactive – meaning they did less than half an hour of walking or other activity a week – rose by 3.4m to 11.8m, an increase of 7.4%, with the poor, elderly, and ethnic groups hit particularly hard.
However, there was some light amid the gloom as the good weather, and lack of traffic on the roads during lockdown, led to a boom in cycling for leisure and sport by 1.2m, a rise of 2.5%. Outdoor running and jogging also increased by 731,000, a 1.5% rise, but this was countered by a decrease in those using indoor treadmills due to gyms being shut.
There was also a boom in online exercise classes, with Sport England noting the “inspirational” impact of people such as Joe Wicks, and a notable growth in those dancing and garden trampolining.
That, the report said, helped explain why women had seen a smaller drop off in activity levels compared to men – they found it easier to adapt to online and at-home alternatives. “Overall, over the two-month period, there was an increase in home exercise of 2.1m and this was largely driven by women,” it added.
Conversely, men were more likely to take part in team and racket sports, both of which were severely restricted during lockdown – when people were only allowed to leave their homes once a day – and saw large drops.
But overall the picture revealed by the survey – which monitored activity between May 2019 and May 2020 – was bleak, with the number of people meeting the chief medical officer’s recommended 150 minutes of physical activity a week falling by 7.1%, just over three million people, from March to May.
Reacting to the report, the Sport England chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth, admitted that lockdown had caused unprecedented problems – but said it was important to recognise the situation was nuanced.
“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 said.
“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.”
Sport England also noted that the pandemic had widened the inequalities it observes between ethnic groups. “Drops in activity levels were larger amongst those from Asian [excluding Chinese], black and 0ther ethnic backgrounds – indicating they’ve found it harder to find new ways to stay active,” it said.
There was also a predictable decline among those over 70, who were told they were more at risk during the pandemic. However, the survey also noted that the 16-34 age group had also been hit particularly hard, with the proportion of those active falling by 10.1%, or 1.4m people.
“This reflects the fact that younger adults make up a greater share of the activities that were severely restricted or less relevant during lockdown, such as team sports and active travel,” it said. “It also indicates that many found it harder to adapt or replace activities.”
The Active Lives survey, which is based on a sample of 190,000 people between May 2019 and May 2020, also found that the gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups widened during these first weeks from mid-March.
But while the pandemic is still significantly depressing activity habits, Sport England says there is evidence that the number of people swimming and playing team sports is slowly rising. It noted that the number of people swimming in September doubled compared to August, though the numbers are still down overall.
The survey also highlights the importance of keeping gyms open – and letting sports carry on as much as possible in a safe way – to ensure that targets for activity levels are met.
As the Guardian revealed in June, nearly half of Britain’s public leisure centres and 20% of the country’s swimming pools risk being closed for good before Christmas – putting more than 58,000 jobs in peril – because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though lockdown restrictions have been eased, a third of leisure centres have still not reopened because of their parlous financial state.
On Thursday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a new £100m fund to support council leisure centres most in need. However, many in the sports sector believe far more is needed to help the sector survive, let alone thrive.