Active Lives Insights

Sport England released the latest Active Lives results the other day. This is a huge survey of almost 200,000 adults in England, designed to track levels of physical activity over time, so it’s worth a bit of time digging in to the data.

The main headline this time was that there isn’t really a headline. Overall levels of activity and inactivity have stayed the same, which in itself must be a disappointment given the amount of effort and money spent on campaigns by Sport England, Public Health England and various others.

Within the overall figures, there appears to be a “hard core” of 11.5m people in England who are physically inactive (<30 minutes per week). The definition of active here includes walking for travel or leisure (but not walking to the shops, or gardening), so that is a pretty shocking statistic. There has been a small drop of 1.1% in inactivity amongst older people (55-74s), so campaigns like One You and This Girl Can might be having an impact on that age group (although TGC is aimed at a very broad female audience). Where those campaigns seemed to win is by promoting a very accessible, simple and inclusive message around fitness and activity, rather than reinforcing the reasons why many people don’t exercise in the first place.

The worrying statistic is a significant (1.6%) decrease in 16-34s being defined as active (doing >150 mins per week) and a corresponding 1.1% increase in those who are inactive.  16-24s are the most active age-group overall, but if people lose the activity habit at this stage in life, the danger is they will never recover it in their later years, with massive knock-on health effects.

The other main trend is either a flatlining or a decline in take-up of traditional and team sports.  Most show no change in either direction, and a few have declined, which appears to confirm that success on the international or Olympic stage doesn’t have any short term impact on the numbers of people playing a sport.

Cricket has declined by 0.2%, despite England hosting and winning last years Women’ World Cup.  The ECB will be hoping their investment in getting 4-8 year olds involved in the game, along with the new T20 competition and more terrestrial TV coverage, will pay off in future years, before it’s too late.

Hockey has declined by 0.1% and swimming was down by 0.7% despite great success at Rio 2016.  These data are from Nov 2016 to Nov 2017, so perhaps there was an initial uptick after Rio, but if there was it certainly hasn’t been sustained.   Swimming is a worrying trend when you consider that this is one of the big participation sports, with over 4.5m taking part regularly.  Track & field has also seen no change, despite London hosting the World Championships in August 2017, although it may be a bit early to judge that one.

On the upside, people are walking more (there was also a 5% drop in tube travel in 2017…coincidence?) and adventure sports and fitness classes are on the up.  There is also a nice correlation between people being active and feeling more satisfied with their lives, with an even greater feel-good benefit from volunteering.


1/ Traditional sports need to really understand their audience and create interesting new formats that are easier to engage with and learn a few lessons from the innovative fitness classes and events that are doing well.  It’s also about communicating in the right way – “build it and they will come” doesn’t work.

2/ The fitness sector is growing, but most of that is likely to be already active people switching from one activity to another. I wrote in another post about the opportunities and challenges for boutique fitness in continuing that growth.

3/ Public health campaigns need to be designed and targeted in the same way, with a specific audience in mind and a simple message that encourages people to make a small change to their lifestyle, that sets them off on the right track.  16-24s may have to be the next big focus.


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