Researchers investigate inequalities in sport and physical activity participation

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To celebrate the launch of our new Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre website, we are shining a spotlight on our sports and physical activity research groups.

Colleagues within our Sport Industry Research Group (SIRG) have been conducting numerous studies into sport and physical activity participation. Professor Simon Shibli has kindly been speaking with us about the research . . .

“In 2015, the UK government’s strategy for sport and physical activity, Sporting Future, detailed a fundamental shift from ‘sport for sport’s sake’ to recognition of the wider value of sport and physical activity as a force for social good.  Sport and physical activity contribute positively to physical and mental wellbeing, as well as to individual, community and economic development. My colleagues, led by Dr Larissa Davies, have conducted numerous studies for the Government, national-level sports agencies such as Sport England, and national governing bodies of sport to demonstrate the social value and social return on investment delivered by sport and physical activity.  Some of this research is cited 11 times in Sport England’s latest (2021) Uniting The Movement strategy. Whilst the benefits of sport and physical activity are increasingly supported by compelling evidence, not all people benefit equally, with the data showing steep social gradients amongst certain demographic groups that have been stubbornly static over many years.  Figure 1 shows the proportion of the adult population in England who met the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended level of physical activity in 2020 according to Sport England’s Active Lives Survey.

Figure 1: Adult physical activity levels in England 2020

Figure 1: Adult physical activity levels in England 2020 [Source: Sport England, Active Lives Survey]

“In general, men are more active than women; younger people are more active than older people; people with a disability are less active than those without; White British people are more active than people from other ethnic groups; and people from higher socio-economic groups are more active than people from lower socio-economic groups.  Socio-economic status is of particular importance because it is linked to numerous inequalities simultaneously.  In a recent piece of research looking at racism and racial inequality in sport, we found the harrowing statistic that 31% of all Pakistani people in England live in the nation’s 10% most deprived areas.  Deprivation manifests itself as low income; high unemployment, reduced access to education and training; poor health; a greater threat of crime; and adverse housing conditions. Under these conditions it is not difficult to see that taking part in sport and physical activity would not be high on people’s priority lists. Looking across all ethnic groups we found that deprivation was negatively and significantly associated with being physically active.

“To compound the problem of inequality in participation (or demand), the supply of opportunities in deprived areas is below average.  Research we have conducted for England Boxing and Sport England shows that deprived areas are underserved with sports clubs and sport facilities.  Local authority sports halls and swimming pools justify their subsidy on the basis of providing opportunities for disadvantaged people, but the reality is that disadvantaged people are underrepresented in these facilities’ usage statistics.

“What then is the solution to enabling people who are inactive to obtain the benefits of sport and physical activity?  Social gradients have persisted ever since we started conducting national surveys on sport and physical activity in the 1970s.  Thus, if we do what we’ve always done – isolated interventions – then we’ll get what we’ve always got: stubbornly static inequality.  Now is the time for more radical approaches that deal with the systemic nature of inequality.  I’m not sure that when Boris Johnson started using the expression ‘levelling up’ he was referring to sport and physical activity, but that is precisely what is needed if the benefits of being active are to be shared more widely.”

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