Children’s experience of physical activity in lockdown

Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown has had a profound effect on daily life and the latest research from Sport England explores the impact on children and young people.

Many of the most prevalent activities amongst children and young people have been severely restricted by Covid (team sports, gymnastics, trampolining, swimming) and this has certainly contributed to the changes in activity levels of young people. 93% children are doing something to stay active but activity levels have fallen with just 19% of under 16’s doing at least an hour of physical activity each day, this compares to 46.8% prior to Covid. Moreover, 43% are doing less than 30 minutes a day compared to 29% before coronavirus hit. Three in ten young people reported being less physically active than usual and just one in eight stated they are more active. However, 21% say they are more active with their family than usual.

The inequalities that are seen outside of lockdown are also seen in the current situation with children from less affluent backgrounds are more likely to have done no physical activity (13%) compared to those from a more affluent background (6%). Meanwhile, secondary pupils are more likely to say they’ve done nothing (9%) than primary children (5%). It is interesting to note that children from Asian (excluding Chinese), Mixed and Black backgrounds are more likely than their White counterparts to be more active than usual. 30% of children from a white background were more active according to parents and carers whilst those from a mixed and Asian (excluding Chinese) saw 45% doing more and Black children are seeing 42% doing more physical activity than usual. However, BAME children are twice as likely to be doing no physical activity, 12% compared to 6% of White children. Overall, children and young people from a BAME background are doing more physical activity than before lockdown, but it is not enough to meet Chief Medical Officer guidelines.

It is also promising to note that girls, who typically are less active than boys, are seeing a positive impact on activity levels during lockdown with 16% saying they are more active during lockdown compared to 11% of boys. This is even more noticeable when looking at the gender gap for those doing less activity during lockdown with just over a quarter (26%) of girls doing less compared to nearly four in ten (37%) boys.

The most commonly cited for changes in activity levels is the lack of access to their usual spaces, concerns around covid-19 or school closures. More than a third stated that the change in activity levels was due to their usual clubs, leisure centres, gyms or classes being closed and almost a quarter due to their local playground, skate park, pitch or court being closed. Whilst one in six say that their parents/carers are too worried about covid-19 to allow them to leave home, this differs greatly between ethnicity with those from a BAME background twice as likely to highlight this issue (27% v 15%). One in seven are too worried themselves to leave home. Not attending school has hugely impacted activity levels with 36% highlighting this as a reason for their changing activity levels, whilst one in five of those who are doing no form of physical activity stated that not going to school has reduced opportunities to be active.

“I usually ride my bike around and if its not raining i ride my bike to school, now i have nowhere to ride my bike, i used to play football with my friends in school now i can’t even see my friends” Boy, Year 5-6

Despite these barriers it is promising to see that 93% of children and young people are doing some form of exercise and that for seven in ten it is related to the benefits and their enjoyment of the sport or activity. In fact 46% of children and young people stated that they were physically active during lockdown as it allowed them to stay fit and healthy and 43% for enjoyment. It is interesting to note that during this term family affluence has no difference to enjoyment, normally enjoyment increases with affluence. Furthermore, there is no significant difference between genders, girls are more likely to say that they are enjoying being more active than usual, this in contrast to Active Lives data which shows a clear gender difference with 58% of boys enjoying physical activity compared to 43% of girls. Moreover, those from a BAME background are enjoying being active more than usual than White children (20% v 12%), again this is a reversal of the trends we typically see.

Family is playing a key role in activity levels for young people with more active parents increasing the likelihood of children being active highlighting the potential for parents/carers to act as positive role models with regards to activity. 71% of children are active with their parent/carers, the second most frequently selected answer for ‘who are you being active with’ was ‘on my own’, however, this was just 31%, thus, highlighting the key role of caregivers. Furthermore, changes in parent activity levels reflect the changes in child activity levels and parental attitudes are also making a difference. Parents who enjoy being active and therefore feels they have the ability or opportunity to be active are more likely to have children who are more active during lockdown.

Walking has become an incredibly popular activity during lockdown, 71% of children reported going for a walk, with this substituting many of the usual activity types for children; more than double the amount of children went for a walk in the past week than did outside of lockdown according to Active Lives. The only other activity that has been more prevalent during lockdown than before has been bike and scooter rides. Walking is the only activity that is not influenced by affluence, however, ethnicity has impacted walking levels. Those from a BAME background see walking levels almost 20% lower than their White counterparts, with just over half of BAME children compared to almost three quarters of White children.

Arguably active play is one of the most significantly impacted activities during lockdown. Normally active play is the top activity for primary age children with 72% taking part and second amongst secondary age children with 49% taking part. During this time figures have dropped 59% and 32% for years 3-6 and years 7-11 respectively, considering the closure of play spaces and the limited opportunities to play with friends this is unsurprising. It is important to note that those with access to outdoor space are more likely to have done an hour of exercise a day, 20%, whilst only 13% of those without access to outdoor space achieved the recommended hour a day. Furthermore, nearly four in ten children from a BAME background have undertaken exercise indoors compared to a quarter of those from a White background.

You can read the full report here.