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Kid's activity levels back to pre-pandemic levels in UK, but lack of government support would threaten recovery

Results show that 47 per cent of children take part in an average of 60 minutes of physical activity each day
The term 'physical activity’ includes dance, cycling, scooter, sports, walking and fitness workouts
Activity levels up 2.6 per cent overall – meaning 219,000 more active children than the last academic year, in line with 2018-2019
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We have a long way to go still to change the overall level to where it needs to be – that’s why we will advocate for children and young people
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of Sport England
Credit: Sport England

Children’s and young people’s activity levels are back to pre-pandemic levels, confirms Sport England in its annual Active Lives Children and Young People Survey 2021-2022.

Published annually, Active Lives reports that 47 per cent of children meet the guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of physical activity a day. The survey clarifies that physical activity can mean dance, cycling, sporting activities, informal activity, scooter, walking and fitness activities.

Overall, activity levels are up 2.6 per cent, meaning there are 219,000 more active children compared to the previous academic year – back in line with the 2018-2019 academic year – the last full year before the pandemic.

The in-school increase of 2.2 per cent, or almost 190,000 more children and young people, taking part in an average of 30 minutes or more sport and physical activity a day, demonstrates the work schools have put in to get pupils active.

“It's encouraging to see that activity levels for children and young people have recovered to pre-pandemic levels,” said Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of Sport England. Hollingsworth credits programmes such as the Secondary School Teacher Training programme to upskill PE teachers in sport and PE promotion and Studio You, the free video-based PE lessons for 13-16-year-old girls, powered by the This Girl Can campaign with supporting these positive results.

However, Hollingsworth believes there's a long way to go to change the overall level to where it needs to be. “We will continue to advocate for children and young people, particularly those facing inequalities and less likely to take part in sport and physical activity, to be given a voice in decisions which affect their experiences to help ensure that those experiences are positive,” he said.

The results show that boys’ activity levels have largely driven the recovery with 50 per cent now doing the 60-minute average compared with 45 per cent of girls. There's also evidence that children and young people are exercising more to improve their mental health outcomes, with 1.2 per cent more engaging in activity to “relax and worry less”. The number of young people exercising to have “fun with friends” has grown by 2.1 per cent.

Nick Pontefract, chief strategy officer at Sport England, agrees with Hollingsworth that while at headline level the findings paint a promising picture, some groups are being left behind. “Primary aged children, specifically those in school Years 3-4 (ages 7-9), and Black boys are not seeing the same recovery,” he said. “In addition, Black girls are reporting significantly fewer positive attitudes towards sport and physical activity than before the pandemic.”

Physical literacy levels, which are linked to higher levels of activity and wellbeing, have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The International Physical Literacy Association’s definition of physical literacy has four elements: motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding which “help an individual value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life”.

“It’s therefore vital there’s a focus on providing positive experiences of physical activity, with children and young people involved in decisions around their design and delivery,” said Pontefract. “And while activity levels are recovering, there are warning signs that more needs to be done – with the ongoing challenges of the cost of living posing a risk to continued recovery and growth.”

UK Active’s Open Doors programme – which has a scale-up strategy and blueprint to boost the transformation of closed schools’ sports facilities into holiday activity hubs – has played a part in growing exercise levels and active play among children.

Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active warns that while the survey has shown positive results, rising energy costs could have a potentially catastrophic impact on the gyms, pools and leisure centres that are crucial to the continuation of this recovery. A recent survey from UK Active showed that 40 per cent of council leisure centres and 100 swimming pools are at risk of closure by March 2023 if they do not receive additional government funding.

“Already, 72 per cent of primary schools rely on pools in the community to provide swimming lessons to children, and with the sector facing huge rises in energy costs, if no further government support is offered from April 2023, many of these pools will close,” said Edwards. “As swimming among children and young people continues to struggle to recover post-pandemic, this would prove devastating.

“While this report shows a positive recovery from COVID-19, the government must ensure it works proactively with the sector to continue to make strides on increasing activity levels across all groups and communities.”

To access the report, click here.

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Children’s and young people’s activity levels are back to pre-pandemic levels, confirms Sport England in its annual Active Lives Children and Young People Survey 2021-2022.
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