Children's activity levels hold firm but significant challenges remain

Children and young people’s overall activity levels are stable as the initial recovery from the pandemic was maintained across the 2022-23 academic year.

It means 47% of children meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of sport and physical activity a day.

The figures, which Sport England has published in the latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey Report, are in line with the 2018-2019 academic year, the last full year before the pandemic, and higher than in 2017-18 when we launched the survey.

The findings reinforce that participation in sport and physical activity varies greatly. Significant inequalities remain in activity levels, with Black (40%) and Asian (40%) children and young people, and those from the least affluent families (44%), still less likely to play sport or be physically active than the average across all ethnicities and affluence groups. Girls (44%) are also less likely to be active than boys (51%).

The release also reveals a number of positive stories, however, including 68,000 (1.5%) more girls playing football since the Lionesses won Euro 2022. There are now 845,000 girls playing the game in England, an increase of 176,000 (4%) since the 2017-18 academic year.

There are also one million (11.5%) more children and young people walking, cycling or scootering to get places than there were five years ago (academic year 2017-18), as increases in active travel during the pandemic have been maintained since society returned to normal.

From previous research, Sport England already knows that cost-of-living concerns have impacted children and young people’s relationship with sport and physical activity.

In February, the Activity Check-in revealed that almost one in five parents/carers said they were using free activities for their children to socialise with friends instead of paid, while 12% said they'd reduced the regularity of paid activities.

And today’s report builds on these areas of concern. Children and young people from the least affluent families are the least likely to be active, with only 44% meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines – compared to 55% of those from the most affluent families.

Furthermore, the number of children doing no activity at all in the previous seven days has increased with 127,000 more children (1.4%) falling into this category compared to 2017-18, meaning there are now more than 600,000 children in England doing no activity at all.

This highlights how important it is to meet the Government’s ambitious target of getting one million more children active by the end of the decade, as well as the scale of the challenge facing the country to do so.

Tim Hollingsworth, Chief executive of Sport England, said: “While today’s figures reveal some positives and is further evidence of our sector’s ability to recover from the pandemic, they also underline how much more work there is to do to get our children and young people active.

“The fact that fewer than half are meeting the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines demonstrates the scale of challenge facing our country.

"Too many children and young people are missing out on the benefits of living an active life – to their physical health but also mental wellbeing and positive social connection with friends and their community. We can see in the data published today: the more active the young person, the more positive their attitude towards sport and physical activity is likely to be.

“This underlines the need for more action – and greater concerted focus across Government departments, as well as across the sport and physical activity sector, and we welcome the launch of the new Physical Activity Taskforce, which meets next week, as a chance for this action to be debated.

“Whilst the overall picture is mixed, I am delighted, however, to see the continued growth in girls’ football inspired by the Lionesses and underpinned by sustained investment in recent years.

“We’re committed to building on this progress still further to ensure the beautiful game – and the health and happiness benefits it brings to millions – can truly be enjoyed by everyone.”

Responding to the findings, Youth Sport Trust Chief Executive Ali Oliver MBE, called for urgent action in response to stagnant physical activity levels among children.

“When too many children are struggling with their well-being, we believe this is a matter of national concern, and strategies that focus on physical activity should be at the heart of approaches to tackle this,” they explained.

“Daily movement is essential for physical and mental health, and play is fundamental for social development. Unhappy and unhealthy children do not learn, and this has consequences for education. PISA 2022 results released just this week showed that pupils in England reported a significantly lower average level of satisfaction (6.01) when compared to the average across the OECD education systems (6.75). Importantly the extent to which a pupil feels satisfied with their life is related to performance in the PISA mathematics assessment. To improve educational outcomes, we must ensure more children are physically active.

“Today’s Active Lives data release reveals persistent gaps in activity levels remain for girls, 7-9 year olds, young people from less affluent families and Asian and Black ethnic groups. We need to take urgent action so all children get 60 active minutes a day of PE, sport and play.

“The Youth Sport Trust has a track record of helping children access, enjoy and benefit from inclusive and engaging physical education, physical activity and sport in schools. Children are born moving and so the task at hand is how to ensure they can keep moving, develop physically as well as academically through education and find activities and sports they can enjoy for life.

“To do this we have to start in schools - sadly, a further 4,000 hours of Physical Education have been lost from the curriculum in state-funded secondary schools in the last academic year, and access to co-curricular enrichment programmes and after school sport is declining. This translates into a devaluing of the importance of physical activity and the role sport plays in developing skills for life, while also reinforcing the false separation between mind and body, movement and learning.

“It is encouraging the Government’s recent Sport Strategy committed to a national campaign to raise awareness of recommended activity levels for children and young people. Given that our research shows less than half (43%) of parents are aware how active their children should be, a campaign to highlight why 60 active minutes a day is so important is vital to drive the societal shift we need to see.

“But alongside this, I believe raising the importance of physical development in the early years, supporting all schools to be active learning environments and re-imagining Physical Education so its sole purpose is healthy learners and active citizens would represent an informed and powerful response to this latest set of Active Lives Data.”

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