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SPIKES in sport and exercise during Covid-19 lockdowns have been the exception rather than the rule in Scotland with a new survey suggesting that most of the population have spent the past year sitting down.

The OSS surveyed a cross-section of more than 1,000 adults in Scotland, aged from 18 to late 80s, and we asked how their sport activity and exercise habits had changed since lockdown was first enforced in March, 2020. We also asked how motivated they were to return to activity and how the past year has affected their physical and mental health.

In total, 47 per cent of the adult (18 years plus) population of Scotland (just over two million people) felt that their participation in sport and exercise activity was a lot or a little less over the last 12 months than the equivalent period before Covid-19, with men reporting more of a drop than women. Around 32 per cent reported doing about the same as pre-pandemic and 14 per cent reported doing more activity in the past year. Just over four in 10 people said that they were walking more in their local area during the 12 months of the pandemic compared with the 12 months previously, but his has not compensated for the declines in activity through sport and exercise.

The trends are similar to other countries but is particularly worrying in Scotland where pre-pandemic activity was among the lowest in the western world. There were shoots of recovery, with good news stories of more people walking locally and cycling before and during the pandemic, however, detailed analysis by Nick Rowe of the OSS has found that this tends to be among people of more affluence. The structural inequalities in levels of activity where people living in the most affluent areas enjoy three times more participation than people living in the least affluent areas have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with 40 percent of people from lower socio-economic groups saying they were doing a lot or a little less sport and exercise activity during the past 12 months compared to the previous year.

“This is cause for concern,” says report author Nick Rowe. “A country where participation rates in sport and levels of physical activity were at best static and showing some indications of reversing has been hit by a pandemic that has pushed them in a negative direction. The future is uncertain.

“An optimistic scenario would see a speedy rebound as people at least regress to their pre-pandemic levels of participation in sport and physical activity. The desire for opportunities to be available is an indication of a public appetite for this return to ‘normality’.

“But there is legitimate concern for a more pessimistic scenario. People’s engagement in positive behaviours are no less habitual than their engagement in negative ones. Those at the sporty end of the participation spectrum – i.e., those with high levels of ‘sporting capital’[1] – are likely to bounce back quickly as sport and exercise opportunities open. But those who have a more ambivalent relationship to physical activity may lack the motivation to overcome what may well be increasing barriers. For these people inactivity and disengagement can become a downward spiral from which they find it difficult if not impossible to recover. And the likelihood is that the impacts will not be evenly distributed but will be felt more by those already living in disadvantage and poverty.”

The impact on the health of the Scottish population is a key concern. Higher levels of total daily sitting time are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, independent of physical activity, and in the survey 56% of adults (approximately 2.5 million people) reported spending a little or a lot more time sitting during the 12 months of the pandemic.

Evidence is growing on the impact of Covid-19 on social anxiety, loneliness, depression, self-harm amongst the young, panic attacks and loss of motivation. Between 47% and 53% of the adult population perceived a very or somewhat negative impact of changes in their sport and exercise participation on their physical health, mental health and or happiness. This contrasts with the 17% to 23% who assessed the impact to be positive.

In looking to the recovery from Covid, six out of 10 Scots (over 2.5 million adults) stated that they consider it fairly or very important that they have opportunities to take part regularly in sport and exercise activity in the 12 months after lockdown restrictions are lifted with this evenly split across men and women. That, however, may be more difficult than it was prior to the pandemic.

In Scotland, the past 20 years has seen a trend of reduced spending on local sport, leisure and recreation and it shows no sign of abating. Emergency Covid support ended in April, and most local authorities and leisure trusts are now seeking help to re-open many of the 1400 public leisure and culture facilities they operate across the country. Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Life are taking an innovative approach to seeking support from communities and other partners to manage around 70 varying types of facilities, and that is .

Rowe says: “Whilst many people are looking forward to the opportunity to return to sport and exercise activity the pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the capacity and infrastructure available to support participation. Many public facilities were already facing challenges to their viability before the pandemic and in Glasgow alone we are looking at as many as 70 public facilities currently seeking community help to remain open, so the extent to which the pandemic has tipped them over the edge towards permanent closure remains to be seen[2].

“The evidence suggests that the voluntary club sector may have weathered the storm as people’s commitment to civic engagement has proved resilient. But even here the verdict is out. And evidence from England has raised concerns about the potential ‘bounce back’ for young people into organised sport with junior memberships having dropped by 67% and a return projected to be 30% less than pre-pandemic levels, and worse in deprived and ethnically diverse communities[3].”

Rowe concludes: “The Government response can be one of passively hoping that if left alone things will return to ‘normal’, but this is high-risk and certainly lacks ambition and foresight.

“There is a powerful argument from both a public health and wider public good perspective that this is an opportunity for reinvention and renewal where Scotland embraces a philosophy that places sport and physical activity in a central and not peripheral place in public policy intervention.

“The argument is not whether post Covid we can afford to invest but whether post Covid we can afford not to.”

This survey was sponsored by Douglas Smith and Eurorisk Partners.


[1] For more information about Sporting Capital see: Rowe, N.F. Sporting Capital: Transforming sports development policy and practice, Routledge, 2018

[2] See:

[3] See:


Covid-19 Report

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