Physical activity in England was at its highest ever level before the coronavirus outbreak, a new report has found, but there is emerging evidence that those gains could be undone because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

The Sport England Active Lives Survey of 181,535 people in the 12 months to November 2019 found that 28.6m adults in England (63.3%) met the chief medical officer’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week – an increase of 404,600 people on the previous 12 months. That improvement was largely driven by more women, adults aged 55 and over, and people with disabilities or long-term health conditions, becoming more active – inspired in part by campaigns such as This Girl Can.

However, the picture was mixed with Sport England, the funding body for grassroots sport, also reporting a “ concerning drop” in the activity levels of young people between 16 and 34 by 265,100 in 2019 compared to the year before. The survey also found that 11.1m adults (24.8%) in England are inactive – with those in lower socio-economic groups 18% less likely to do any sort of fitness activity compared to those from the most affluent groups.

Sport England now fears the trend for those in lower socio-economic groups to be less active could grow during the pandemic – with separate research conducted by ComRes for the organisation showing that people on low incomes are finding it harder than normal to be active at the moment.

While welcoming the report, the Sport England CEO, Tim Hollingsworth, admitted there were areas of concern – and urged sport to start thinking collectively about how to sustain the nation’s well being after the pandemic.

“That overall activity levels were at a record high across England at the end of last year is excellent news, particularly the strong growth among older adults, people with a disability and among those with long term-health conditions,” he said.

“However, behind the overall positive picture, there remain areas of real concern. Not least the sobering reality that if you are well off you are far more likely to be active than if you are not, and the ongoing evidence of a significant ethnicity gap, where we are not seeing growth in activity levels among some ethnic groups.

“Added to this now is the unprecedented disruption the pandemic and lockdown is having on people’s sport and activity habits and behaviours. The true nature of this, and its impact on the nation’s future activity and the ability of the sector to support that, is still unknown. But it is what anyone with an interest in sustaining the nation’s wellbeing, and the positive impact that sport can have on society, needs to start thinking about now.

“How we shape our collective response to this challenge will not only determine future participation levels, but also give us the opportunity fundamentally to address and reverse those inequalities.”

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