Skip to main content

The Observatory for Sport is Scotland’s only research think-tank dedicated to informing, connecting and challenging around how and where community sport activity can improve the health and wellbeing of the population.


Never has the need to understand activity’s role in Scotland’s health been more important as we seek to emerge from a global pandemic that shone a light on the high rate of ‘underlying health conditions’, many of which are associated with long-term trends of inactivity and reducing opportunities for people of all ages to be active in their own communities. Scotland’s adult population is close to 70% overweight or obese, and most recent children statistics revealed nearly 23% of five-year-olds to be at risk of obesity problems, and life expectancy rates are dropping.

Alongside that the lack of understanding of how local activity seeps into all areas of society, and a belief that it is merely a ‘nice to have’, has meant nearly two decades of decreasing investment in public sport, leisure and recreation across Scotland’s communities, reducing opportunities for play and activity, at a time when technology is providing myriad alternatives for the bored. Many children tell us they want to play more – the WANT to escape their phones and iPads – but don’t feel safe in local parks, and either can’t afford, or do not have the travel suport, to access facilities or clubs.

So, we engage and connect people from across the Scottish and UK governments, politicians and civil servants, national sport bodies, health, education and private business to a wide network of people working at the sharp end of community sport and physical activity delivery in councils, trusts, state and independent schools, clubs, groups, social enterprise and other aspects of the Third Sector’s charity and volunteering networks – to understand the challenges.

We work with all of Scotland’s universities and many global institutions to develop and analyse primary and secondary research, existing data, and turn it into useful, impactful information that can drive new, sustainable policy and practice to meet the changes in our lifestyles, and sport and leisure demands. And we challenge, positively, constructively and in partnership, because our independence allows us to take a neutral stance, unencumbered by politics or funding considerations, to drive fresh solution-focused thinking where it is needed.

For example, we know that Scottish Government figures tell us Scotland’s average figure of sport participation has not changed much in the past decade and more, sitting at around 53/54%. Our research revealed two clear trends within that data, not previously spoken about. One is of increasing sport activity for people from more affluent backgrounds, predominantly in gym work, cycling and recreational walking, which has been matched by consistent decline in community sport activity among people with less disposable incomes. Figures dropped during the Covid pandemic with 47% of adults surveyed telling us they were doing less and just 14% reporting doing more, again largely walking and cycling. We, therefore, expect the national average to drop below 50% for the first time in the next household and health surveys. However, the main concern is how much it falls in areas of deprivation and how many more barriers to activity appear.

We focus on understanding the causes of inactivity, and, most importantly, identifying where people and organisations are addressing them, what kind of support they need and how and where partnerships can be formed that create a brighter, healthier future for all in our population.

Research told us that poverty and inequalities is the main barrier to sport activity in 21st Century Scotland, and so we are currently looking at programmes such as those run by Pollok United FC and FARE Scotland in Glasgow, and Street Soccer in Dundee, where they are using sport of all kinds, including armchair aerobics, yoga, dance and walking football, to bring communities together to then access other counselling and support services, such as job clubs, addiction and abuse support, and even GP diagnoses and physio.

Our open research library has a wealth of evidence around where sport is of value, and where it isn’t, in supporting mental and physical health, social inclusion, educational attainment, reducing sickness in work, and healthy ageing. So, when looking to support their staff, how many companies opt for the free gym membership? Something proven time and again to have little if any impact on company sickness levels and performance. When considering how to engage more girls in sport, how many clubs have ditched the body-hugging style of kit, which girls tell us turns them off participating, with body image a major issue for girls and young women?

The OSS is currently conducting the first research of its kind in over 20 years into the barriers to activity for people with all kinds of disabilities, in partnership with the University of the West of Scotland, Scottish Disability Sport and a range of organisations. We are working with golf’s R&A to look at how they can address the elitist and exclusive nature of their sport and take golf back to the people, starting with an ambitious project in Glasgow.

In 2022, we will also be helping a leading property developer shape a new town centre shopping centre into a health and wellbeing space, with sport activity key to its heart; developing insight to how sport and social clubs bring frail older people together in safe, empowering environments, and impact on health prevention; and analysing the Covid impact on children’s activity levels, and future impact, among many other areas.

We have a growing team of 50+ researchers from across Scotland and globally helping to shape our work and contributing learning from around the world, and are supported by a growing number of funders, individuals and companies, helping us to develop thinking in different areas.

All of the above projects and supporters will come together in our second National Sport Summit, to be held in November, 2022, where we will inform, connect and challenge on the best routes forward for a healthier Scotland, and empower us all to play a part.

If you would like to join our campaign to create a healthier, happier Scotland, contact our Chief Executive David Ferguson for a chat –