The number of people playing sport and taking part in physical activity has returned to where it was before Covid-19, but inequalities remain.
Activity levels for adults in England increased last year and have bounced back to where they were before the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
The figures, which we’ve published today by Sport England, show that the overall number of people playing sports and getting active has recovered after participation fell as a result of the restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus.
The latest Active Lives Adult Survey report is the first release to cover a period without any coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions since the pandemic. It shows, between November 2021 and November 2022, 63.1% (29.1 million) of the population met the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of doing 150 minutes, or more, of moderate-intensity physical activity a week – an increase of 1.7% year on year.
This means that, compared with when Sport England first ran the survey between November 2015 and November 2016, there are 1.5m more active adults – a statistically significant number.
The number of people classed as inactive – averaging fewer than 30 minutes a week – has fallen over the last year by 1.4%, to 25.8% of the population (11.9m). This remains slightly above pre-pandemic levels but is in line with where they were in 2015-16.
The ongoing recovery wasn’t guaranteed and is a testament to the dedication of those working and volunteering in sport and physical activity, as well as the significant investment of exchequer and National Lottery money, that has helped the sector not just to survive the worst of the pandemic but to bounce back.
Types of activity
Today’s report also gives us a detailed understanding of the types of activities people are undertaking and how these have changed over time.
Team sports, which were severely hit by the impact of Covid-19, have overall recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Football (up 561k year on year), cricket (up 124k), netball (up 139k) and basketball (up 57k) have seen an increase in participation numbers since restrictions were lifted.
This is important as people who play team sports are more likely to report they find sport and exercise enjoyable and satisfying than those who take part in other forms of activity.
The release shows that the number of people walking for leisure – which boomed during lockdowns – has understandably fallen back but remains well above its pre-Covid-19 figure.
Conversely, fitness activities and active travel saw big drops during the pandemic but have seen significant rises over the last 12 months, although both remain below their pre-coronavirus levels.
However, while the overall picture is positive and there is clear progress, the data shows that the scale of recovery has varied across different sections of society with women, those from lower socio-economic groups and Black and Asian people still less likely to be active than others.
It’s why the Sport England strategy, Uniting the Movement, has a strong focus on tackling inequalities, and why we’re investing more in the people and places that need extra support.
Variations by age
Age continues to be a major factor that determines how likely a person is to be physically active, and the older a person is the less likely they are to meet the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines.
However, this masks some long-term trends and, despite a significant recovery over the last year, there are now nearly half a million fewer active young people (aged 16-34) than six years ago.
Conversely, we were seeing significant progress in older adults’ activity levels before the pandemic and these continued to increase once restrictions were lifted. There are now 1.3m (5.0%) more active 55-74-year-olds and just over half a million (7.8%) more active people aged 75+ than there were in November 2015-16.
Addressing the long-term decline in young adults' activity levels remains a priority and Sport England will continue to work with their partners to ensure activity offerings appeal to this younger generation so they can benefit from the profound health, social and personal benefits that being active brings.
Variations by place
Activity levels fell across all places during the pandemic. However, Covid-19’s impact on activity levels was greatest in the most deprived places (IMD 1-3). Today’s report shows that the scale of recovery also differs by deprivation level. The least deprived places (IMD 8-10) have seen a full return to pre-pandemic activity levels, while mid-deprived places (IMD 4-7) have seen a partial recovery but remain 0.8% down. These places’ activity levels are still above where they were in November 2015-16 (up 1.0%) when we started the survey.
However, the most deprived places (IMD 1-3) have fared far worse, with activity levels remaining below both pre-pandemic (down 3.1%) and November 2015-16 levels (down 2.6%).
Expanding Sport England's place-based working by collaborating with more places on their local priorities and partnership opportunities, and helping them use sport and physical activity to deliver the outcomes they want and their communities need, is a key part of the Uniting the Movement strategy and Sport England will be focussing their efforts in the most deprived places where they can make the biggest impact.
Chief executive's reaction
“The Covid-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge to community sport and activity in England, so it’s great news that the overall number of people being physically active has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Alongside our significant and targeted investment of both Government and National Lottery funding, the monumental effort of those working across sport and physical activity, both professionals and volunteers, has played a huge part here. I would like to pay tribute to their work in supporting the recovery and getting more people moving once again.
“We know full well, however, that there is still much to do. It’s clear that alongside continuing significant financial challenges, the recovery has not been universal, and today’s report provides further evidence that some groups face more barriers to being active than others, with women, those living in the most deprived places and Black and Asian people are less likely to enjoy the benefits of sport and being active than others.
“That’s exactly why our Uniting the Movement strategy continues to see us work with our partners to disproportionally focus resources and funding towards the people and places that need the most support to be active.
“Today’s data also shows the challenge facing the country in ensuring young adults continue to engage with physical activity and we’ll work with our partners to ensure the offer available to this group remains relevant and accessible.”
Chief executive, Sport England