COVID-19 pandemic significantly increases physical activity disparities amongst ethnically diverse communities

The latest annual Active Lives figures for November 2019/20 revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the ongoing disparities in physical activity among adults aged 16+ from Asian (excluding Chinese), Black and Other ethnic communities*. While these groups remain the least active of all ethnicities, following the trends of previous years, they also saw the largest drops in activity over the last 12 months.

  • Only 49.5% of Asian people (excluding Chinese) achieved 150 minutes of physical activity, a drop of 4.4% from November 2018/19. Among Black and Other ethnic backgrounds, the participation level was 53.3%, with a 12 month drop of 4.5% and 7.6% respectively.
  • Mixed, White Other and White British continued to be the most active, although drops in participation had occurred except among Mixed ethnic groups.

Sport England reports that the “pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on those with the lowest activity levels and as such the inequalities have widened. Amongst those from Asian (excluding Chinese) backgrounds, men have driven the drops.”

Whilst physical activity has decreased among all ethnic backgrounds during the pandemic, the data suggests that men from some ethnic communities have found it harder to stay active during the pandemic. Particularly large drops in activity were seen among men from Other ethnic  (11.1%) and Asian (excluding Chinese) (6%) backgrounds compared to lower drops of 4.6% and 3.1% among their female counterparts. The pandemic has also resulted in some of the most significant increases in inactivity (less than 30 minutes a day) among men from these groups. While these changes may have had the impact of reducing the gender gap, Black and Asian (excluding Chinese) women have remained among the least active of all groups as pre-pandemic and continue to have the largest gender difference in comparison to their male counterparts (11% and 6% respectively).

Nearly two fifths of Asian (excluding Chinese) women (38.7%), 36.1% of women from Other ethnic groups and 34% of Black women did less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day. In contrast only a fifth (20.6%) of women from Mixed ethnic backgrounds were inactive, 24.7% of Other White and 26.2% White British females.

Sporting Equals research has consistently highlighted the challenges facing Asian (excluding Chinese) and Black women. Barriers such as cultural perspectives on gender and family, lack of time due to caring responsibilities, suitability and a lack of access to opportunities and religious factors have all played a part in the ongoing difficulties faced by some women (Research Report into South Asian Women and Inactivity, October 2018). It is likely that these and other barriers will have been exacerbated due to pandemic restrictions and concerns about the health disparities and impact of COVID-19 on Asian and Black communities revealed in national research (Disparities in the risk and outcomes of Covid-19, PHE, May 2020).

Activity levels were hit hardest during the initial phase of the pandemic when the proportion of the population classed as active dropped by 7.1%. This represents just over 3 million fewer active adults. Participation during the different phases of COVID-19 restrictions were similar for both Asian (excluding Chinese) and Black adults.  Among both groups, the largest drops in activity occurred at the start of the pandemic reflecting the national picture. However, among Asian (excluding Chinese) people a significant drop also occurred in mid-September to mid-November suggesting activity levels have been slow to recover and more support may be required for this group.

Muscle Strengthening

The November 2019/20 Active Lives Adult Survey introduced the 'muscle strengthening' measure for the first time. The population's achievement of the Chief Medical Officer's recommended twice weekly sessions followed the ethnicity and gender patterns already observed. Less than half of Asian (excluding Chinese)(44.2%), Black (46.7%) and Other ethnic (49.2 females and 49.5% of Asian (excluding Chinese) males engaged in muscle strengthening activity each week compared to more than two thirds of White British (68.7%), Mixed (68.4%), White Other males (67.4%) and 66.8% of White Other females.

Inequalities in sport and physical activity have clearly widened due to the pandemic. Further research is needed to understand more fully the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on participation levels and the perceptions of and challenges experienced by the least engaged communities.  Increasing activity levels will be paramount in tackling the physical and mental health repercussions of the pandemic. Re-engaging groups that have been most impacted by the pandemic will need to be a key priority to ensure that participation and inactivity gaps do not continue to widen. 

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing further insights from the Active Lives Adult Survey November 2019/20.

* Ethnic demographic categories used in the Active Lives Survey are: White British, White Other, Mixed ethnic, Asian (excluding Chinese), Black, Chinese and Other ethnic group.

About the survey

177,000 people in England participated in the data collection between November 2019 and November 2020 using an online and paper questionnaire. This period includes the eight months since the start of COVID-19 restrictions in mid-March 2020 to the start of the second national lockdown in November 2020.


Sport England Active Lives Adult Survey November 2019/20 Report link