Physical activity may have changed for the better but our community activities are suffering, says Dr Chris Mackintosh of Manchester Metropolitan University 

For the first time since the Second World War, the whole of the UK is rapidly changing due to a single seismic event, in this case a pandemic. Its impact has triggered a huge change to sport and physical activity as we know it.

In England, we have around 151,000 sports clubs and three million sports coaches, ranging from grassroots to elite. But during the country’s lockdown, all sporting facilities and parks have been closed and all elite and grassroots sport clubs have been forced to cancel training sessions and postpone their season to stop the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Now, what used to be a society with the freedom to exercise as much or as little as we liked, is now limited by the government’s instructions to only leave our house for one period of exercise per day.

But, it’s not all bad news.

For the first time in many people’s lives, while we have never been more isolated, some people have surprisingly become more active than ever before.

The new rules put in place due to COVID-19 have forced a re-evaluation of sport and mass community involvement, and we have been introduced to a new type of activity that is online and virtual activity inside the home, such as live gym sessions on social media, and self-planned activity outside the home, such as walking, running and cycling

The new rule has actually made people focus on the one activity they’re allowed to do per day, even if they would usually spend most of their days sedentary.

More active

It has also seen the launch of new campaigns such as Sport England’s ‘Join the Movement’ campaign, which is aimed at helping people to stay active at home during the pandemic.

It encourages people to come up with creative ways to stay active during the lock down and share their ideas on social media using the hashtag #StayInWorkOut.

It is very clear that people are finding new routines and ways of working out – whether that be gardening, cleaning out the shed, or a 30-minute run, they are all classed as vigorous and heart raising activities. By doing this just three times a week, people will be meeting some of the government’s physical activity recommendations and requirements, which would usually be 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

The impact of COVID-19 has had an obvious effect on individuals’ behaviours towards physical activity, which could potentially have a positive effect on public health and people’s attitudes to exercise into the future.

However, for the people and organisations behind sport and physical activity in the community, such as local football clubs, personal trainers, gym instructors and leisure centres, the impact is less so certain.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the sector financially and many of these businesses and individuals are worrying about the security of their buildings, income and what the future holds for their clubs and establishments.

On March 31, Sport England announced a £195m funding boost for the community sport sector to help physical activity through Coronavirus and help partners, clubs and community organisations cope through the short and long-term impact of the pandemic.

It is made up of the following:

  • £20m Community Emergency Fund, which will be opened immediately for clubs and community organisations to bid into
  • £5m for existing partners to bid into if they’re facing specific financial difficulty
  • £55m to fund new and innovative ways to keep people active during the pandemic and when the restrictions are over, and to help organisations get back to business and adjust to a different environment
  • £115m rollover of current funding into 2021/22 to give long-term certainty to more than 100 well-established partners, who play a vital role to sport and physical activity in England.

The community sport sector is one that people often forget about, but the funding demonstrates the need and demand from our providers. If we just left this sector to fend for itself – it could ultimately be a disaster for local communities and the future of mass community participation.

Physical activity benefits

We all know the benefits and value of taking part in sport and psychical activity – one benefit being that it can reduce the risk of depression by 30%.

That’s why during this pandemic it’s important that we keep physically active and it’s good to see people taking advantage of their one exercise per day. But there are bound to be people who are struggling to adapt to this new way of living and we could see a rise in social anxiety and depression whilst in isolation.

Over the last few years, the sector has worked incredibly hard to promote sport as a way to improve mental health and is another reason why this funding is so important; to ensure we can put the relevant interventions in place to make sure physical activity is still available for these people. Though it will be incredibly difficult to design projects when everyone is restricted in their houses and working from home.


Different boroughs in the country are now working to see what they need to do in their local areas, and I have recently kick-started some emergency research with Active Cheshire – the lead body for physical activity and sport in the county.

We really want to understand where support may be needed as a result of COVID-19 for the sport and leisure facilities and providers in Cheshire and Warrington.

We are targeting 300 to 500 different sport and leisure providers, from independent yoga instructors to major leisure trusts, who have four leisure centres and 250 staff. We are asking each of them to fill out a questionnaire to find out what we can do to broker these providers and consumers.

The results from this survey and the actions that will come from this will become clearer in the coming weeks.

If you are based in any of the four local authorities across Cheshire and Warrington and can complete the survey.

Sport has long been held to offer a role for social policy in grass roots communities, and so-called uplift in national wellbeing from elite sport competition consumption. But never before in our lifetime have we seen such unrivalled changes in patterns of behaviour, norms and government policy. Sport and active leisure remain vital to our health but is also constrained like never before. I’d suggest that innovation and entrepreneurial approaches to delivery may emerge as a result.


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