Ruth Hollis Chief Executive of Spirit of 2012 writes
The Covid pandemic led to a shock fall in fitness levels as lockdown measures severely restricted the activities of every household.
But one individual arguably did more than any other to keep the country moving.
Live PE classes led by Joe Wicks racked up more than 80 million views and became a defining feature of lockdown life.
And Joe wasn’t alone: organisations across the UK stepped up to the challenge, and many people who were forced to work from home turned to walking, cycling or running to keep fit or to boost their wellbeing.
Encouragingly, new research has found that many people have continued since restrictions ended, with up to 5.2million (22 per cent) of the least active people maintaining their lockdown walking habits.
That’s why Spirit of 2012, the official social legacy funder of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, has published a detailed report arguing that action is now needed urgently to build on the popularity of lockdown walking and the fitness regimes championed by Joe Wicks.
Because, without action, the country faces a public health emergency.
Changes in the way we work and live mean that the UK’s population is now more physically inactive than at any time in history.
Persistent low levels of activity are affecting communities in all the home nations, with an estimated 15 million adults classed as physically inactive because they partake in less than 30 minutes of moderate activity each week.
The figures for those living in deprived communities – and for those who are older, disabled or within an ethnic minority group – are even more concerning.
Our new study – ‘Step Change: Working Together Towards an Active Society’ – involved focus groups across the UK and a wide-ranging survey of more than 2,000 adults about their lifestyle and activity habits.
Almost half of the respondents said they struggled to stay fit, 44 per cent said they found sport neither enjoyable nor satisfying, and 39 per cent said they simply couldn’t find the time to stay fit.
There are nearly 30 local authority areas in England where more than a third of residents are deemed physically inactive.
But the research also provides us with hope and inspiration.
As one member of our Northern Irish focus group told us:
‘I find working from home has allowed me to be as active as I want to be, to be honest.
‘I get up first thing in the morning and take a big walk with the dog because I don’t have the commute to the city centre for work.’
These are habits forced upon people through lockdown which have proved productive and ought to live on in the long term.
But this won’t happen on its own – it requires decisive action and investment to ensure we don’t let it slip.
Our report also highlights the work of various grassroots organisations which have concentrated on getting the least active people in their communities into the routine of exercising.
We have learned so much from these groups, particularly the efforts of Sport England’s Uniting the Movement and Activity Alliance’s Get Out Get Active, alongside projects led by sportscotland, the Scottish Government, Robertson Trust and London Marathon Charitable Trust.
We have identified a number of principles to extend this work and ensure it can be replicated in cities, towns and villages right across the UK.
This includes using a person-centred approach that is tailored to individual differences and needs, using sport and physical activity to achieve positive change, taking people on a journey of small steps to physical fitness, and building social elements into projects to encourage motivation.
Successful initiatives also come about by embedding social activity into daily routines, using effective communication, working in partnerships across sports and non-sports organisations to reach the least active, and building a skilled and motivated staff and volunteer workforce.
Everyone has a role to play in increasing the activity of our nation, from councils and governments to employers and wider civil society.
The governments of all four nations of the UK must put in place up-to-date physical activity strategies that take into account the impacts of Covid-19.
For a quarter of a century in this country, we haven’t even dented levels of inactivity.
Now is the perfect opportunity to take action.