Staying Active as the Cost of Living Continues to Increase
New Cost of Living Report Highlights the Challenges Facing a Recovering Sport & Physical Activity Sector
A new report has been published by Sport England examining how the rising cost of living is impacting the sport and physical activity sector and people’s ability to be active.
The report surveyed nearly 3,000 people, alongside looking at recent activity data through Active Lives surveys and other partner research and found that one in three (36%) people said they could not afford to be active while nearly another third (29%) reported they had less time to exercise, often as a result of having to work more hours.
In April 2023, the Sport England Active Lives Adult Survey showed that four in every ten adults (41.2%) in Lincolnshire are not meeting the recommended two and a half hours of exercise per week as set out by the UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines in 2019; this is 4.3% higher than the national average. While there has been a recovery back to it’s pre-pandemic levels, the report highlights how the cost of living in particular is continuing to put pressure on areas where there are already inequalities, either changing how people choose to be active, or removing their ability all together.
It’s not the same for everyone
In Lincolnshire we continue to see that men are more active than women while levels of activity decrease as people get older. People with a disability or health condition are less active than those without, and some ethnic groups and people from the most deprived areas are also less active.
Further compounding the inequalities “People from the most deprived areas and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to say their levels of physical activity have been negatively affected by cost of living increases,” the report produced in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University states.
These inequalities are mirrored for our children and young people, with boys being more active than girls, children from less affluent families or from Black, Asian and Other ethnic backgrounds being less likely to be active in the county.
Over the last few years, a new trend is developing in our leisure centres with the greatest reduction in participation is being for 16-24 year olds (a drop of 4% from Sep 21 to Sep 23) and it’s the only age group to have reduced significantly for two consecutive years according to Moving Communities data, provided by all 6 leisure centre operators in the county.
Less money to go around
As the cumulative effect of rising interest rates and higher energy prices rise, people have less discretionary income after paying for the essentials. This negatively effects those on lower incomes the most as they have less ‘slack’ to absorb these increased living costs and are forced to make choices about how to spend their money.
In February 2023, 63% of adults reported reduced disposable income and in August 2023 36% of adults reported that cost of living increases were having a negative impact on their ability to be active. People living in the 30% most deprived areas (based on indices of multiple deprivation) were most affected.
Behaviours are changing
The Activity CheckIn survey in August 2023 showed that over two-thirds of adults (71%) had changed to their sport and physical activity habits. People are swapping paid activities and cancelling memberships for free alternatives, such as walking or cycling or home-based activities. This is reflected in what parents and carers are doing with their children too.
Parents and carers of children and young people said they were making changes to their child(ren)’s sport and physical activities because of cost of living increases. The types of changes were similar to those reported by adults i.e., increasing the number of free activities, walking or cycling to get to places and cancelling membership to specific sports activities.
Creating opportunities for local people
While individuals and the industry clearly face challenges, Active Lincolnshire are working hard to support Lincolnshire and create opportunities for people to be active. With changing habits as people adapt how they get active and a focus on free ways to move more, the organisation has rolled out Street Tag across the county. Street Tag is a free app that transforms your surroundings into a virtual world of challenges. Users can explore your local area, collect virtual tags and climb the leaderboard to win prizes. With school and community leaderboards it’s helping to get children and adults alike moving more and enjoying being out in their communities.
The recent distribution of nearly £200,000 has seen Active Lincolnshire support 41 organisations through the Together Fund on behalf of Sport England. At the heart of every one of these projects was investment in programmes that supports people on lower incomes, those from ethnically diverse communities, and people with a disability or long term health condition; all demographics who this report shows are the most effected by increasing costs. Funded organisations were required to prove the sustainability of their programmes to ensure the benefits would continue long term.
Let’s Move Lincolnshire offers a county wider service helping to support residents to be more active. Managed by Active Lincolnshire, it hosts a wide range of resources to help people through barriers; for example on how to be more active when you have a long term health condition, alongside a live Activity Finder that helps you search for a wide range of activities right on your doorstep.
How is the sector effected?
While the increasing cost of living has a clear direct effect on local people, it also impacts the sport and physical activity sector as a whole. Rises in energy costs affected paid and voluntary sports organisations', with research from the Sport and Recreation Alliance in July 2022 outlining that one in four clubs were in a financial ‘red zone’ (holding reserves below a third of turnover) and creates sustainability concerns for organisations.
It is therefore a concern that 6% of adults and 7% of children and young people have cancelled membership to specific sports or activities. In Lincolnshire, at leisure facilities, people are swapping to pay as you go (PAYG) sessions instead of committing to memberships with a 7% shift towards PAYG vs memberships and now nearly half of sessions are PAYG (46% share on members in Oct22-Sep23 compared to the previous year). The number of times users are making a trip to a leisure centre has also reduced with people on average now visiting less than four times a month, while the use of outdoor facilities (3G pitches, outdoor courts etc) has declined in Lincolnshire with over 63,500 less uses over the same period.
Financial pressure may result in temporary or permanent facility closures. The government's Swimming Pool Support Fund aims to help those most affected (public leisure facilities with swimming pools), but the broader sector remains at risk. Older and less energy-efficient facilities, and those with limited public transport access are particularly vulnerable leading to greater strains on those in rural areas. This is especially relevant in Lincolnshire where over two thirds of the population (67.54%) living in a rural setting and five of our seven districts are among the 10% least populated in England (people per km2).
Facility providers are still grappling with rising fixed costs and reduced income due to increased energy prices and the overall cost of running their businesses, prompting them to cut sessions and raise fees. With the average leisure site’s utility costs up by £15k in the past year, a key concern is the loss of access to facilities. The Sport and Recreation Alliance Survey (2022) found that 77% of clubs identified availability of leisure centre facilities as a potential limiting factor on their activity, and more than half (53%) cited affordability of facilities.
To help improve local peoples access to facilities, Active Lincolnshire are distributing £989,000 through Opening Schools Facilities funding (2022 – 2025) with the first third already granted. This investment increases the opportunities to be active in Lincolnshire by supporting schools to open their facilities for local communities and pupils to use for sport and other physical activities outside the school day. The funding helps open alternative facilities, to create new opportunities and diversify the industry. Funding has been distributed across all seven districts ensuring the communities most in need are supported. A diverse range of facilities across the county are being helped through this programme; from increasing opening swimming pools, to developing football pitches and increasing access to fitness suites.
Gemma Skaley, Head of Development (Physical Activity & Young People) commented:
“It’s fantastic to see the impact of year one of the Opening Schools Facilities investment across Lincolnshire. By taking an insight led approach we have been able to target distribution of the funding to schools in communities where need is greatest. Using our expertise, we have been able to take a custom approach to develop projects that best fit local need and advocate for innovative projects to DfE”
A cautious outlook but there are opportunities
As we look ahead, inflation is predicted to return to the 2% target level by the end of 2024 and living standards are projected to return to 2021/22 levels by 2027/28 which will be below pre-pandemic levels in real terms.
It’s encouraging to see that headline participation rates in physical activity have remained stable compared to pre-Covid levels, showing resilience in activity patterns despite pandemic and cost of living challenges. However, beneath this, inequalities in participation continue to persist.
People from the most deprived areas and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to say their levels of physical activity have been negatively affected by cost of living increases. Club activities are nearing pre-Covid levels, but cost pressures, especially from rising energy prices, affect club finances, which in turn, is making access less affordable for many.
It is a difficult time for individuals, clubs, community groups and organisations of all sizes as the moment but encouraging steps are being made to tackle inequalities and provide free, low cost and sustainable opportunities for local residents to be active.
With investment, creative thinking and by being adaptable to providing the right opportunities and solutions to support people to be active, we are confident that local people will continue to have increasing access to a variety of suitable ways to move more.