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Surge in appreciation of exercise and activity during lockdown

During Mental Health Awareness Week, our latest figures show the majority of people use exercise to manage their mental health.

22nd May 2020

People have turned to cycling and walking to keep active outdoors during the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, with 63% of people across the first six weeks of lockdown saying exercise is important for their mental health.

The latest findings from our weekly survey, commissioned to track the public’s activity levels and attitudes towards exercise during the initial six weeks of lockdown, show new exercise habits have formed as a result of the restrictions on movement.

And whether it be families exercising together, people getting active in nearby green spaces, or walking and cycling to the shops for essentials, our research shows – during Mental Health Awareness Week – the importance people place on exercise to their mental health.

A man leans on a wall outside a park to stretch

The figures also show that as the initial phase of lockdown progressed, people’s worries about leaving home to exercise eased, with 47% having reservations in week six, compared to 60% in the first two weeks.

“It has been great to see people finding ways to be active and that more and more people are talking about exercise being part of the approach to managing both their physical and mental health,” said Lisa O’Keefe, our executive director of insight.

“Undoubtedly the current period has been hugely difficult for both the sport and physical activity sector and the general public, yet people are finding a new appreciation for moving more – whether it’s at home or out walking or cycling.

“The pandemic has changed the way we engage with activity and it will continue to do so as we begin the gradual journey towards a new normal as more sport and leisure facilities open up.”


across the first six weeks of lockdown, an average of 63% said they get active to manage their mental health

Walking and cycling have proved to be the most popular forms of outdoor activity during the initial lockdown phase, with people walking for exercise up from 59% in week one to 63% in week six, and cycling increasing from 8% to 13%.

That's compared to 61.9% of adults walking and 16.3% cycling at least twice a month pre-coronavirus.

Meanwhile an average of 45% of people have been keeping active at home, whether that be with online exercise classes or just dancing around the living room. 

And although new habits have formed, getting back into a gym was the most popular activity people said they would do once restrictions lift further.

Our research has also shown, however, that while intentions and attitudes to exercise are positive, inequalities still exist in those who are getting active.

Those from lower socio-economic groups, older people, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups and women are all less likely to be active, with these results also seen in activity levels prior to the current crisis.

The gender gap remains, with more men doing the recommended 150 minutes of activity a week, than women - 35% compared to 30%. And more women are doing less activity than usual during lockdown - 40% compared to 36%.

While 23% of people with long-term health conditions are doing the recommended amount compared to 35% of those without.

And for people in C2DE groups, who are more likely to be on a lower income, be key workers, be accessing food banks or to have lost their job, only 27% are doing more activity than usual - compared to 39% of those in the ABC1 groups.

Undoubtedly the current period has been hugely difficult for both the sport and physical activity sector and the general public

Lisa O'Keefe

Sport England executive director of insight

In order to reach groups finding it harder to be active, we’ve launched a £20 million Tackling Inequalities Fund – part of our up to £210m response to help those impacted by coronavirus – supported by National Lottery money.

The fund will work with specific partners and organisations to ensure inequalities don’t worsen, or become entrenched, during this period.

This is in addition to the Join the Movement campaign, backed by radio and television ads, that offers free workout ideas for in the home and outside, aimed at inspiring people to get or keep active during this period - including the relaunched Couch to 5K app, and the Active 10 walking app.

“It’s important that everyone – from whatever background, age, gender or ability, is able to access those benefits physical activity brings,” added Lisa.

“And at Sport England we’re looking forward to working with the many organisations who share our desire to help the nation move more while ensuring no one gets left behind.”

How activity has, or can, help

  • Marjorie Barnes, 63

    Marjorie is registered disabled with a severe back problem and scoliosis in her lower spine – read how exercise has helped her.

    Despite using a walking stick and suffering from mobility issues, Marjorie is still passionate about keeping active. When the coronavirus pandemic first started, she stopped being as active as she once was. But she learnt to embrace online classes during lockdown and is now out walking again since restrictions have been loosened.

    “My mother sadly passed away at the beginning of lockdown and I had a fall,” she said. “Being active felt really difficult, although I managed the occasional long walk. Getting active has really changed my life and these past few weeks not being able to meet up with friends, walk and talk, has made me feel increasingly stressed, low and a bit isolated.

    “Now that I can walk with one other person, my mood has lifted and I feel like I have my confidence back. Being active is something we can all do. I never ever thought I would be a long-distance walker, but there is something for all of us. I have made so many new friends and feel like I have my freedom back. I want everyone to be able to experience this.” 

    Read less
  • Professor Greg Whyte

    ukactive's scientific advisory board member explains how exercise can help fight the virus.

    “Coronavirus has threatened both our mental and physical health, but physical activity has helped many people to fight back," he said. 

    "As well as making us feel more positive, exercise has a crucial role to play in improving the body’s resilience.

    "Not only can exercise reduce infection, it can dampen the deleterious response to infection and play an integral role in the rehabilitation of people recovering from the virus.  

    “The challenge we now face as a society is to harness the value of physical activity in both prevention and rehabilitation, and we must make sure that everybody can benefit, regardless of their background.

    "We must look at our health and fitness providers as an essential public service, providing immeasurable support to our NHS at a time when it’s needed most.”

    Read less

We've put together a report to show the data in full, as well as our accompanying analysis.

See the data

Data from c. 2,000 respondents was weighted to be representative of adults in England by age, gender, region and social grade.

Full data tables can be found on the Savanta ComRes website.

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