This summer the Activity Alliance released its third Annual Disability and Activity Survey* followed by an impairment specific report, revealing slow progress in engaging disabled people in physical activity since the COVID-19 pandemic. The reports are a sobering read: many disabled people are fearful about returning to physical activity, experience inadequate support when they do, and have heightened financial and health-related barriers since the pandemic.
Sadly, these themes echo in other research. The latest Active Lives data from Sport England* shows a partial recovery in physical activity at an overall population level, but this is not the case for everyone. People with long-term health conditions and disabled people have long been observed to be less active than others, but have also not yet started to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-pandemic levels.
Our own research for We Are Undefeatable*, a campaign focused on encouraging people living with health conditions to become more active, suggests some reasons for this lack of recovery. In April 2022, despite restrictions having eased, 1 in 10 people living with health conditions still claimed to be shielding, and 2 in 5 remained anxious about catching COVID-19 given the potentially severe health consequences for them. The backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis also plays into their concerns, and renders certain types of physical activity less financially accessible. It must also be remembered that these anxieties often come on top of ongoing condition-related barriers such as pain and fatigue.
It’s clear that for large parts of the population, it simply isn’t possible to ‘get back to normal’ quickly. For the very understandable reasons outlined above, recovery in physical activity levels will be slower, and additional support might be required.
Interestingly, among people with health conditions who take part in physical activity, there is some evidence of evolved preferences in terms of how they wish to be active: research for We Are Undefeatable indicates that 47% are worried about exercising too close to others, while 55% feel more safe exercising at home than in public. So, while it’s important organisations and venues continue to demonstrate the actions they’re taking to ensure venues are safe, accessible and supportive, it is worth recognising that some people will continue to prefer to be active at home at least some of the time. We Are Undefeatable has developed a range of resources for people living with health conditions to get active in this way, such as YouTube playlists of appropriate activities and a hard-copy ‘Get Moving at Home’ leaflet.
Despite the challenges of recovery there are grounds for optimism. The Annual Disability and Activity Survey points out that the majority of disabled people do want to be active, and a similar observation can be made about people living with health conditions based on research for We Are Undefeatable. Thus, the willingness is there, but we will need to double down on inspiring and supporting these audiences in order to address the inequalities that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Campaigns such as We Are Undefeatable have begun to shift the narrative, putting an arm around those who think physical activity may not be for them, making the case that exercise doesn’t have to consist of running a marathon in order to be worth doing, and shining a light on the myriad of benefits for both health and personal fulfilment. More than ever, it is critical that we continue our work to support these audiences, and to engage the sport and healthcare sectors in this mission.
Guest post from Barbara Langer, Insight Angels. Barbara manages the We Are Undefeatable programme evaluation on behalf of the partnership.