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.