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2020 - the year of data and insight

Concluding our look back on 2020, Jessica Forte blogs on what we've learned about activity levels during a year dominated by coronavirus, and how we've managed to capture the data.

30th December 2020

by Jessica Forte
Head of customer insight, Sport England

In a year that felt like nobody knew anything for sure anymore and public health numbers dictated our lives, we’ve depended on data and insight like never before.

I can’t be the only one who’s scrutinised the daily coronavirus (Covid-19) case rates to second guess what might happen next – feeling reassured when the ‘seven-day average’ line points down, alarmed when it shoots up.

At a national level, data, evidence and insight has played a critical role in helping us make sense of things, directing decision-making and guiding investment.

A man runs alone on Broadstairs beach, Kent

At Sport England, we’ve had to rapidly respond to a sector in urgent need of support. Together with our stakeholders, we’ve had to keep the nation active when much of what we knew about sport and physical activity no longer applied.

What would happen when some of the nation’s major activities, such as swimming, football and elements of fitness weren’t possible at times? How would the nation’s behaviour change and who’d find it hardest to adapt? Who needed the most support? Where did they need it? And what did they need?

We needed answers. We needed data and insight!

In the last nine months we’ve commissioned several pieces of research (1), consulted with the sector and reviewed secondary sources from our partners and beyond. We’ve applied behavioural theory to explore how people might behave in these unprecedented circumstances and to inform our approach (and that of our partners) to addressing their needs.

Together with our stakeholders, we’ve had to keep the nation active when much of what we knew about sport and physical activity no longer applied

It hasn’t always been easy conducting research in a global pandemic (whilst adapting to remote working, home schooling children, baking banana bread and of course doing PE with Joe Wicks) but it’s been a great time for data and insight.

Here are some highlights and headlines from what we’ve learnt – to find out more, take a look at our research page.

Physical activity behaviours have been highly disrupted

  • Although national activity levels fell by 7% in the first few weeks of full lockdown (March-May), for many people the importance of being active was more salient and relevant than ever and lockdown was perceived as an opportunity to experiment and try new things (2).
  • As a result, cycling for leisure and sport, outdoor running and jogging, and home activities such as dance and garden trampolining all saw thousands more participating than ‘usual’ in lockdown (3).
  • Despite the vast majority (more than nine in 10) of children doing something to stay active , the amount they have done has been impacted by the restrictions, and declined for many in lockdown (March-May) with some recovery back to ‘normal’ levels on the return to school in September (4).

While many stayed resolutely active, some found it harder than others

  • Disrupted routines, financial stress, lack of support for informal carers and anxiety around catching coronavirus all contributed to lower activity levels for many (5).

In an otherwise challenging year, some have found their experience of sport and physical activity in the 'new normal' better than 'normal'

  • Some children told us they were not only more active than usual but they were enjoying being active more than usual and, interestingly, it was those typically under-represented groups (girls, children from Black or Asian backgrounds) who were most likely to say so (6).

  • Many people (adults and children) have recognised for themselves, for the first time, the benefits of being active and have particularly appreciated the social component of exercising with others (7).

  • Taking part as a family (usually going for a walk) has been key to keeping adults and children active and ensuring their enjoyment (7).

Things can only get better...

...but we need to look out for those who need more support than others

Our new strategy, to be published in January, will place tackling inequalities at its heart. So, watch this space.


  1. Savanta ComRes Covid-19 Physical Activity tracker and Join the Movement evaluation; Childwise BUZZ Omnibus May 2020; EdComs’ qualitative research to understand children’s experiences; Family Kids and Youth Insight panel September 2020; In collaboration with the Richmond Group, RDSi We Are Undefeatable qual communities and DJs We Are Undefeatable quantitative tracking
  2. EdComs qualitative research of 62 children aged 5-16 and Join the Movement evaluation
  3. Childwise Buzz Omnibus May 2020 and Parent data from Savanta ComRes activity tracker
  4. Childwise Buzz Omnibus, May 2020 and Family Kids and Youth Insight panel September 2020
  5. Join the Movement evaluation
  6. Childwise BUZZ omnibus, May 2020, EdComs’ qualitative research of 62 children aged 5-16
  7. Savanta ComRes Covid-19 activity tracker 2020, EdComs’ qualitative research

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