Inequality in physical activity needs urgent action, new research recommends

1 March 2021

Person walking or jogging through a park
Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

Urgent action is needed to address “stark inequalities” in physical activity across the country, according to new Public Health England guidance written by University of Derby academics.

The researchers have also warned that the pandemic and a rise in obesity has also exacerbated health differences, and steps must now be taken by public bodies responsible for commissioning, designing, and delivering opportunities for participation.

In their PHE-funded report, entitled ‘Understanding and Addressing Inequalities in Physical Activity’, the authors – Jessica Jackson, Dr Clare Roscoe and Dr Niamh Mourton – recommend that public bodies which commission physical activity need to understand the complexity between the many different groups with protected characteristics - such as age, sex or ethnic group - within their local communities in order to increase activity, and to improve health and wellbeing.

Their study analysed evidence gathered from Sport England’s Active Lives Survey from 2015-2019 which had already revealed levels of inactivity rising among different community groups. They then identified, synthesised, and analysed the body of evidence which have implemented interventions which aim to engage communities with protected characteristic groups in a variety of physical activities.

The academic team also conducted qualitative study with practitioners currently delivering physical activity to communities with protected characteristics.

Jessica Jackson, Research Nurse at the University of Derby, said: “How we access or participate in physical activity has real implications for our health. A decline in physical activity can result in reduced life expectancy, increase our chances of illness and negatively affect mental health too.

“Health behaviours may be replicated across protected groups because of factors which enable or are a barrier to opportunities for physical activity. These factors create inequalities between the different groups within our communities.

“What we wanted to do is to identify those enablers, barriers and opportunities, and offer practical and evidence-based guidance to commissioners, for ways in which they can engage with communities to reduce these widening inequalities. Given that these issues of inequality are also being exacerbated by the pandemic and rising levels of obesity, these steps need to be taken as a matter of urgency.”

The recommendations include:

Dr Roscoe, Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity, Exercise and Health at the University, said: “What is clear from the research is a need for more meaningful consultation with communities to ensure what is being delivered is what is appropriate.

“More diverse programmes of physical activity, greater flexibility to adapt to individual needs, appropriate methods of engagement and a better understanding of the social context of individuals’ lives are all vital.

“Ultimately, the focus of designing, delivering and commissioning activity should always be on achieving outcomes which reduce inequalities.”

Jamie Blackshaw, National Lead for Physical Activity and Healthy Weight at PHE, comments: “We are delighted that this research has been published, especially as it comes at a time when it is so important for physical activity services to address inequalities.

“The pandemic has highlighted the harsh inequalities relating to physical activity so we need to break down the barriers and develop opportunities, so that physical activity is accessible for all. Everyone should have the opportunity to get active every day and reap the benefits for their physical and mental health.”

For more information about research at the University of Derby, visit our website.

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