Revealed: The devastating impact Covid-19 and lockdowns had on physical activity

·9-min read
Women running.
Women running.

The stark impact of Covid 19, and the associated lockdowns, on the nation’s fitness is laid bare in a major new report which shows that one million more people became inactive.

The drop-off was especially alarming among young people, with some 446,000 fewer people between the ages of 16 and 24 deemed active compared to the most recent reporting period before the pandemic.

Of the entire adult population, some 12.5 million people (27.5 per cent) averaged less than 30 minutes of even moderately intense exercise a week.

The Active Lives survey, which was published by Sport England, provides the most extensive annual analysis of activity trends and found that existing inequalities relating to ethnicity, socio-economic status and disability were worsened during the various national lockdowns.

The data covers the period from May 2020 to May 2021, and so includes restrictions following the first national lockdown from March, and then two further full lockdowns when many facilities were completely closed.

This inevitably caused huge specific declines in the numbers of people swimming regularly, taking part in fitness classes or simply walking to work, although that was partially offset by rises in walking for leisure and cycling.

Sport England acknowledged the “unprecedented impact” and particularly highlighted the disproportionately severe impact on disadvantaged groups in areas of high deprivation. The data with respect to young people, and a relatively sharp fall among adults under the age of 24, will be of particular alarm.

The survey defines being active as moderately intense exercise, such as a brisk walk, for at least 150 minutes a week. Vigorous activity, classed as when you are out of breath or are sweating, counts double.

Across the entire adult population, 39.1 per cent of the population did not meet that definition against 27.8 million (60.9 per cent) who did. More than a quarter of adults did not even manage half-an-hour.

A partial recovery in activity levels has been evident since restrictions were largely lifted in March, although activity levels still remain down by 1.6 million (4.1 per cent) on the most recent equivalent period in 2019.

Although the drop in men’s and women’s activity levels were similar, there was still a gender divide due to the fact that women were starting from a lower base and have since found it more difficult to get back to their pre-pandemic levels.

People from black and non-Chinese Asian backgrounds, over-75s and those who are disabled or have long-term health conditions were among those groups who were significantly less likely to be active.

Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England, said that “access, opportunity and the capability to exercise” had been hugely curtailed and promised a recovery plan that tackled inequalities.

Telegraph Sport launched its Keep Kids Active campaign last December and Sport England have made children’s activity one of the central strands of its new 10-year strategy. The Youth Sports Trust have also called for a national education campaign to tackle an inactivity crisis in young people and have urged the Government to set a measurable new target of becoming the most active nation in the world.

The Government announced a new anti-obesity strategy last July following what it called the “wake-up call” of evidence of a link to an increased risk from Covid-19.

“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,” said Hollingsworth, who also pointed to data which has consistently showed the clear correlation between regular activity and wider physical and mental wellbeing.

The numbers of people who described themselves as happy and satisfied also suffered small declines during the period, with women again more impacted than men.

“It is clear that the benefits of activity don’t just manifest themselves physically; the mental health and wellbeing of people is boosted, communities become more cohesive, and the economic impact creates added value locally and nationally, as well helping individual employment prospects,” said Hollingsworth.

Ukactive, the organisation which represents gyms and public leisure centres, stressed the need for additional Government support to ensure that facilities can survive and then grow to underpin the recovery. “If we are to learn the lessons of this pandemic that still threatens us, we must improve the nation’s health," said Huw Edwards, the ukactive chief executive. “Gyms, pools, leisure centres and studios are the engine room of activity in this country, supporting 10s of millions of people each week.”

Too many women in BAME community have fallen off activity ladder

By Maggie Alphonsi

The alarming revelation that some one million more people have become inactive because of the pandemic hits really close to home. Prior to Covid, my mum was fit and active. She was a regular gym goer but her activity level suddenly dropped off after the first lockdown. Sadly, she now lacks confidence to set foot inside the gym and as a result her health has deteriorated - a scenario that I imagine tallies with so many other women up and down the country who, like her, are from a Black, Asian or ethinic minority background.

It also chimes with how women in general have struggled to rediscover their pre-pandemic levels of activity. It’s something I’ve seen first-hand through my coaching work at High Wycombe RFC, where I assist the women’s team. When society returned to some form of normality after the first lockdown last year, female players trickled back to training. What was most striking among the women who did return at my club in High Wycombe was their lack of confidence. Many were worried about the contact element of the game and the fear of getting injured because they’d been away from the sport for so long. For others, it became quickly apparent that the pandemic had impacted players’ ability to socialise, which is completely understandable given that many people’s lives switched to remote screens and natural human contact was lost.

Anecdotally, I know there has been a broader reluctance among female rugby players to return to training at women and girl’s sections at rugby clubs up and down the country. It unfortunately tallies with one of the other key findings from Sport England’s latest Active Lives survey - that women who’ve experienced a decline in activity levels take longer and require more support to return to sport and fitness. Pre-pandemic, there were hundreds of women in my gym doing Zumba classes - but how many would have carried on with them be it virtual during Covid? The answer to that question makes me sad. I don’t want to stereotype, but women are often the main carers in the family, so they’re the ones who have to sacrifice ‘me-time’ and assume childcare or homeschooling duties.

I’ve noticed that some women tend to need continual encouragement to believe in themselves, and I believe that is because society has imposed gender roles on us from an early age. Boys are usually encouraged to explore and take risks, where girls are generally taught to be more risk adverse and act a certain way. And if they do behave out of the norm, they are then labelled tom boys (a term which I strongly disapprove of) - unfortunately we know men in general have greater self-esteem than women - and that confidence gap is often more pronounced in sport. I liken it to being on maternity leave - when you’re away from work for a whole year and that time comes to return to the world of work, you suddenly start doubting your skillset and you worry if you’ll ever be the same as before.

With Covid cases on the rise and talk of yet another lockdown on the horizon, we need to act fast if we want to address the nation’s activity levels and particularly among the socio-economic groups that have been disproportionately impacted. We know that a significant proportion of frontline workers during the pandemic were from a black or ethnic minority background - in London alone workers from a minority group represented nearly half of the health and social care sector - so physical activity has been less of their main focus. A lot of them probably don’t have private health insurance, either, and all these factors have exacerbated that existing inequality.

For me, a lot of it comes down to role models and ensuring we have increased visibility of those from the BAME community exercising and encouraging others to do the same - be it in TV adverts or other sections of the media. Another solution could be to create more entry points into sport. The reason why rugby has been guilty of not attracting diverse playing pools in the past can partly be attributed to where clubs are sometimes located. Often they are out in the sticks in the countryside where they are not served with good transport links, which means it isn’t an attractive or realistic option for those from more diverse backgrounds who live in built-up areas.

For women, too, location and exercise are intrinsically linked. There has been a lot more anxiety around females exercising outside since the tragic murder of Sarah Everard and women want to train in places that are going to be well lit and not in isolated locations. I took up running when the pandemic hit, but I would be very specific when I would do it. I never used to venture out on the streets alone in the dark - it always had to be first thing in the morning because I worried for my safety. It just saddens me to think women now have to consider their safety when they exercise.

Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but this feels like a crucial moment for collective action in order to start helping those like my mum who have dropped off the activity ladder and she is now experiencing ill health as a result of inactivity.

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