Children's activity levels down but many embrace new opportunities

The number of children and young people who were physically active fell during the 2019/20 academic year in England, as first storms and then the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic restricted the type of activities available.

The figures, published in Sport England’s latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey covering the 2019/20 academic year, show 44.9% of children and young people (3.2 million) met the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more a day.

This represents a decrease of 1.9% (86,500) compared to the same period 12 months ago, although activity levels remain higher than in 2017/18.

Some 31.3 (2.3m) did less than an average of 30 minutes a day, with an increase of 2.4% (+201,400) in the proportion who were less active over the last year. The number of less active children is still less than it was in 2017/18.

The survey showed activity levels were increasing during the autumn term (2019) and the overall drop over the academic year was due to disruption caused by the storms in the spring term and the impact of the pandemic across the summer term. 

However, thanks to the dedication and resourcefulness of parents, teachers, coaches and organisations who deliver activities, the drop during the period between mid-May and late-July (when restrictions started to ease) was significantly less than it was for adults earlier in the pandemic.

As Sport England was unable to collect data while schools were closed for most pupils during the first national lockdown – and as such are unable to report what was happening to children’s activity levels between March and early May – the survey represents the first period it has been able to reveal any impact restrictions designed to control the virus had on activity levels in children. 

In the summer term, when some schools started to open again for more pupils in key year groups, the number of children and young people physically active fell by more than 100,000 (down 2.3% compared to the same period 12 months ago). 

The numbers show children and young people were generally successful in adapting their habits to include new forms of exercise, however the types of activity they were able to do changed drastically.  

Not surprisingly, sporting activities (which include team sports and swimming) were hardest hit, down 16% with just over 1 million fewer children and young people taking part, whilst the biggest gains were found in walking, cycling and fitness.   

The lack of available choice also led to a significant drop in the physical literacy of children and young people – which is made up of four elements: motivation (measured through enjoyment), confidence, competence plus knowledge and understanding. This means that, while in the short-term activity levels could largely be maintained, it’s possible there could be long-term consequences about how children feel about sport and activity.

It also highlights the importance of ensuring sport and physical activity in and outside of school is back up and running as soon as it’s safe to do so.  

The report also shows the restrictions, while impacting everyone, hit certain social groups harder than others with those from Black and Asian backgrounds were more impacted than those who are White.

Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England chief executive, said great credit is due to the hard work of parents/carers and the physical activity sector but the challenges caused by the pandemic are fierce. 

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