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Are things looking up for sport and physical activity?

Rachel Phillips Director in Research, Insight and Consulting 10/06/2021

We have been tracking attitudes and behaviour towards physical activity throughout the pandemic for Sport England. As restrictions ease and more sport and leisure facilities open up, we wanted to take a dive into the latest data to see what this is telling us.

You don’t need to tell people that physical activity and sport is good for their mental health – they already know this. People are responding better to compassion.

There are fewer barriers to physical activity and sport.

As case rates of Covid have dropped, so has concern among the public about the virus as a barrier to being active. Being worried about Covid has dropped from being mentioned by 28% of English adults to 17% between January and May. The corresponding loosening of restrictions is also present in our data. The proportion of English adults who say their preferred activities not being available is a challenge to being active has dropped from 15% to 7%.

However, old barriers might be resurfacing.

The proportion of English adults who say being too tired or lacking energy is a challenge to them being active saw an increase between January and May, from 27% to 35%. In addition, people saying they are not fit enough has increased from 17% to 25%. ‘Deconditioning’ (where stamina has decreased from lack of activity) is clearly a fear among some on returning to gyms and other activities. Sport England’s Return to Play recommendations respond to this, encouraging  coaches, instructors and activity organisers to support people by ‘easing back in’ slowly and not overdoing it.

Mental health and physical health are linked.

This leads to the next point, which is that whether or not someone engages in physical activity is very closely linked to their mental health. We saw this in our online community forum with members of the public, some of whom reported a negative cycle of feeling too low to exercise, and then feelings of guilt about not exercising, leading to further negative thoughts. The phrases used by Sport England to support the sector on this point are positive: “You don’t need to tell people that physical activity and sport is good for their mental health – they already know this. People are responding better to compassion.”

Hopefully one good thing to come out of the pandemic is to show themselves and others greater compassion, at least in this area!

Opening up means competition for time.

Gentle return, treating ourselves with compassion, and reassurances about safety will be vitally important in encouraging people to undertake physical activity. As restrictions lift, there actually appears to be slightly lower appetite to increase levels of activity.

In January, when we were in full lockdown, nearly three in five (58%) said they intended to do more physical activity and exercise once restrictions were lifted and Covid-19 was under control. This has dropped to 53% in May.

It could be argued that “people only wanting what they can’t have” explains this decline, but also what is likely here is that the opportunity to do all types of activity – seeing friends and family, shopping, day trips, are competing with physical activity and exercise. All this indicates a true ‘return to normality’ for the sport and physical activity sector.

For more information on how we can help brands to understand changing behaviours please get in touch.

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