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Coronavirus and wintry weather take a toll on children and young people's activity levels

Posted: Thu, 14 Jan 2021 15:48

Coronavirus and wintry weather take a toll on children and young people's activity levels

Whilst the 2019 academic year was off to a promising start with children and young people's activity levels on the rise, over the course of the academic year activity levels fell nationally after first winter storms and then the coronavirus pandemic restricted the amount and variety of activities available.

Sport England's latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey covering the 2019/20 academic year revealed that 44.9% of children and young people (3.2 million nationally) met the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more a day. This is down 1.9% (86,500) compared to the same period 12 months ago, although activity levels remain higher than in 2017/18.

Under a quarter of children and young people (23.8%, or 1.7 million) were fairly active, meaning they achieved an average of 30-59 minutes per day, while 31.3% (2.3 million children nationally) achieved less than 30 minutes of activity per day. The number of less active children is still less than it was in 2017/18, however.

It's important to note that the Active Lives Children and Young People survey is still fairly new, this is the third release, and it was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, in line with the Adults Active Lives survey which was released in October, Sport England has published two reports: one that covers the full 2019/20 academic year and, in addition to the pandemic, also includes the significant impact of the storms that were so disruptive last January and February.

The second focusses specifically on children and young people's behaviours in the summer term as activity restarted after the first national lockdown.

Key national findings

  • Over the year, boys were more active than girls. 47%, or 1.7m boys, remained more likely to be active than girls (43% or 1.5m), with a gap of 213,000.
  • However, girls adapted better to the restrictions caused by the pandemic - likely due to the closure of organised sporting opportunities. Over the summer months boys activity levels dropped by 6.4%, whilst girls increased by 2.4%, with increases in walking and fitness highlighting how girls adapted their activities.
  • Despite the closure of gyms and traditional sporting opportunities, there was a rise in informal walking and cycling activities.
  • Children and young people from the most affluent backgrounds saw the largest decrease in activity levels, whilst those from the least affluent families didn't see activity levels change compared to 12 months ago.
  • Children and young people from White British backgrounds are more likely to be active than all other ethnic groups except for White Other. Decreases in activity levels compared to 12 months ago have been driven by children and young people of Mixed and Black ethnicities.

The picture at national level reveals the negative impact that the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and school closures have had on activity levels and physical literacy – motivation, confidence, competence, and knowledge and understanding.

What about Norfolk data?

In Norfolk, physical activity levels were broadly consistent with the national results:

  • 45.2% of children achieved an average of 60+ minutes per day;
  • 18.9% were fairly active, or achieved an average of 30-59 minutes per day;
  • However over a third, 35.9%, achieved less than an average 30 minutes per day

The figures reflect a statistically significant change from the 2018/2019 academic year, with a 6% rise in less active children. Unfortunately, there is no local authority data included in the 2019/2020 report due to reduced response rates, and inconsistences in data collection as a result of the restrictions which meant data was unreliable and not suitable for comparison between previous releases and between local authorities.

Stephen Hulme, Active Norfolk's Children and Young People Relationship and Development Manager, said:

Given the challenges that the last year has presented, particularly on school attendance where a significant proportion of physical activity takes place, it is not surprising that the activity levels of our young people have decreased during 2020, however that does not make the fact any less concerning. The benefits of being physically active have never been better recognised; with growing inequalities and deteriorating physical and mental health in our population it is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts to encourage and support our young people, especially those that can benefit most, to get moving.

These results do, however, present us with some encouragement in that mission. During lockdown girls became more active than boys and activity rates amongst families facing more barriers to being active were resilient. We will continue to work to understand why this is and incorporate that learning into our efforts towards a more equitable and active environment for children and young people in Norfolk.

How were children getting active?

The figures show children and young people were generally able to adapt their habits to include new forms of exercise, however the types of activity they were able to do changed drastically.

Sporting activities including team sports and swimming saw significant reductions, down 16% with just over 1 million fewer children and young people taking part, whilst the biggest increases were found in walking, cycling and fitness.

The findings also highlight the importance of ensuring sport and physical activity in and outside of school is back up and running as soon as it's safe to do so.

To help increase children and young people's opportunities and access to physical activity we have produced resources and training to support school staff to make activity a regular part of the school day, and we'll continue to update our Sector Support Hub with the latest return to play information as soon as restrictions ease.

You can access both reports and Sport England's analysis of the 2019/2020 Children and Young People Survey here.

Tags: Active Lives, Children and Young People, coronavirus