Millions of children inactive shows pressing need to tackle a generational crisis

Research published by Sport England reveals the decline in children’s activity levels last year has not recovered, and growing inequalities in participation and physical literacy are compounding the physical, social and mental health problems facing a generation of young people.

Findings from Active Lives – Children and Young People show that in the 2020/21 academic year:

  •  Only 44.6% of young people (3.2 million) average at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day – the recommended amount set by the Chief Medical Officer. This is down from 44.9% of young people last year – a drop of 94,000. 2.3 million young people (32.4%) averaged less than 30 minutes per day (compared with 31.3% last year).
  • Inequalities in activity levels have got much worse for some groups of young people, particularly children from the least affluent families who remain the least active. There was a stark ethnicity gap, with only 36% of Black children getting active compared to 45% of all children and young people.
  • The range of activities on offer became narrower, reducing the appeal and enjoyment for many young people.
  • Physical activity in schools bounced back in the summer term of 2021, following their reopening, underlining the important role that schools play in ensuring a universal entitlement for every child.

Responding to the findings, Youth Sport Trust CEO Ali Oliver MBE said:

“It is incredibly sad that millions of young people in England are missing out on the fundamental role that physical activity should play in their education and development. In the face of a global physical and mental health crisis, we are worried that this is still not being treated as a core priority of our national recovery.

“From families and schools through to sports organisations and government, a concerted national effort is now needed to get young people active.

“We know from our own research that most people are unaware that young people should be active for 60 minutes every day to protect their physical and mental health. In this context it can be little surprise that Sport England’s data shows 4 million young people are doing less activity than recommended by the Chief Medical Officer.

“There is so much that an active lifestyle can do to help young people growing up amid the challenges they face today, supporting their fitness, physical and mental health, their social development and learning in the classroom. While Sport England’s research shows a clear link between physical activity and a range of other positive outcomes, there is a desperate need for greater public awareness of why play and sport are so important to young people’s growth and wellbeing.

“The stark reality of a generation where millions of young people are inactive now has to serve as a wake-up call for change. At a time when the whole country is trying to recover from a physical and mental health crisis, these findings should be doubly concerning for us all.

“This is why the renewed focus on young people in Sport England’s Uniting the Movement strategy is so important. At the Youth Sport Trust we are committed to working hand in hand with Sport England to galvanise schools and organisations across sport behind a national ambition to level up opportunities for young people.

“On a positive note, this year’s Active Lives data doesn’t show further reductions in overall activity levels and indeed reveals encouraging progress has been made in maintaining a trend of improved participation levels among teenage girls. The return to activity in schools in the summer term led to an encouraging bounce back. This is thanks to the incredible efforts of teachers and those working in school sport, including School Games Organisers, who in the face of unprecedented challenges managed to provide millions of opportunities for young people to enjoy high-quality competitive school sport.

“The promised imminent publication of government’s new School Sport and Activity Action Plan, along with a long-term funding commitment for PE and school sport, will play a vital role in ensuring we build on this, through a determined national effort to make sure no young person misses out on the opportunity to enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Published on 9 December 2021