Working to keep the nation active - Sport England

Earlier this year, as lockdown closed the entirety of the sport and physical activity sector and confined people largely to their homes, Sport England refocused their work to concentrate on a small number of short to medium-term priorities.

One of these priorities focuses on our work to ‘keep the nation active’ and from a working group which I have been chairing, several important actions have emerged – including a campaign to help people to get and keep fit at home called Join the Movement, and investments into helping people who were finding it most difficult to be active, like our partnership with Demos on 10 Today which supports older people.

Underpinning all of this has been our work, through insight and research, to really get to grips with how people are feeling about sport and activity and what is happening to activity levels. So, today we are setting out what our insight has told us are the three strongest themes that could impact people’s return to sport and physical activity.

Through weekly tracking during lockdown, by working with Savanta Comres, we were able to understand the picture of what was happening to activity levels and say that while lots of people were finding new ways to be active – such as discovering great fitness at home products or taking up running or cycling – many others were having a much more difficult time, particularly young people for whom the absence of school settings had a particular impact.

In recent weeks we have concentrated on understanding how people feel about sport and activity reopening and about how their lives have changed. And we want to share that insight today to help everyone involved to understand and adapt, so people continue to feel they have the choice and ability to be active in ways that work for them in this new era.

We have identified three specific consumer groups and themes – combining our work with Savanta Comres, the qualitative evaluation of our Join the Movement campaign and through leaning on other data sources – and the slides attached further down this page give additional depth to this insight.

These themes are important because if not well understood by everyone involved in delivering sport and physical activity, levels of activity across the country could be seriously hampered and fewer people will stand to access the enormous physical and mental wellbeing benefits that being active brings.

1) People who feel worried or anxious about contracting coronavirus for a prolonged period

Coronavirus has had a profound effect on people’s psychological wellbeing. People have experienced fear and uncertainty, and personal circumstances including work stress and the fear of illnesses and the reality of bereavements has been extremely difficult to manage. Some people still feel afraid to go out. 

In many cases the burden of these demands has inadvertently diverted attention away from the importance of physical activity and exercise. 

There are, however, short-term opportunities to support people who feel like this. One opportunity includes the gradual reopening of sport and activity and the gradual return to workplaces.

However, a threat that we are already seeing happen is that as the sector opens up, many do not return for an extended period of time and levels of worry and anxiety about whether it is safe to attend persist.  

Providers should consider simple and accessible ways to manage anxiety as they reopen and restart. 

That will require ongoing reassurance around issues like hygiene, proximity to others, policing behavior and so on. Providing videos and clear ‘in-advance’ messaging and imagery would be a major benefit to support people’s concerns.

Worry and anxiety might also mean that many might avoid public transport as a means of travel. This presents an opportunity to encourage more active travel – walking and cycling in particular – rather than only considering car use.

Audiences mostly affected: Those with longstanding physical or mental health conditions, disabled people, those who are/have been shielding, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people and older adults said they are most likely to feel worried or anxious about contracting coronavirus.

2) People disproportionately affected financially as a result of coronavirus 

The financial uncertainty as a result of coronavirus has had a profound impact, particularly among those already on low incomes, as well as young people, and we know that this has had a knock-on impact on their ability to be active.   

When facilities were closed, money was a major barrier for people put off by the price of buying their own equipment – although lots of people have found cheap and accessible ways to get fit, including free online resources.

There are both opportunities and risks to help with financial concerns to grow or maintain activity levels.  

The reduction in disposable income may lead to a reduction in memberships of clubs or organisations and this will be further impacted as the furlough scheme ends, and as perhaps more people lose their jobs. This means that activities that are free/low cost/provide good value for money are becoming more and more appealing and providers need to consider hybrid models to maintain their audiences in the short term.  

There are opportunities here too around the increase in domestic holidays and outdoor providers should consider where they can have the biggest impact. We are currently exploring partnerships in this space ourselves. 

Audiences mostly affected: Women, people under the age of 25, people from lower socio-economic groups, disabled people, BAME people and unpaid carers said they are most likely to be disproportionately affected financially.

3) People experiencing a greater burden of care because of coronavirus 

People with caring responsibilities remain very concerned about going outside or being around groups of people, but there are significant short-term opportunities/risks for this group, especially the gradual return to workplaces and children returning to school. 

Many people who were looking after children during lockdown were able to embrace being active as a family and this may be lost as this context changes once more. But there is an opportunity that an increase in time (for some) may enable more time for physical activity.  

At-home opportunities remain important for this group and our own campaigns, especially This Girl Can, which targets women, and Join the Movement, which helps people find ways to be active around the home, and we are working hard to continue to find more innovative ways than ever to activate our audiences through these channels. As restrictions ease, those in this group tell us they are also more likely to actively seek opportunities to be active and spend time with those they care for – especially outdoors.

Audiences mostly affected: Women, families with children and carers (paid or unpaid) said they are most likely to be experiencing a greater burden of care.

We hope presenting this insight is useful to help those who are finding it hardest to be active and to ensure those who deliver sport and physical activity understand the wide-ranging issues facing possible consumers and participants.

We will continue to share our insight and research on our website, and you can read more about the topics I've covered today in the above customer insights document.

Please do reflect on this with your Sport England lead contacts and talk to us if you want to discuss how we could align more closely to these audiences.

Active Partnerships
Lancashire and South Cumbria Health and Care Partnership
Funded by UK Government Levelling Up