The Guardian view on grassroots sport: kick the sedentary habits
Sedentary lifestyles, and their consequences for health, are not a new problem. Falling levels of physical activity have been linked to rising levels of some illnesses, and particularly obesity, for years. The decreasing number of people engaged in manual labour is one of the reasons for this change. Another is the ubiquity of screens. A third is high levels of car use, with children in particular moving around less freely and independently outdoors than in the past.
Boosting community sports, particularly in deprived areas such as east London, was supposed to be the long-term legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. The reality is that cuts to local authority and schools budgets over the past decade have led to opportunities being removed. As with obesity, low levels of physical activity are linked to poverty, with low incomes creating barriers to participation. Research by Sport England has shown that poorer children are less likely to take part in sports, including swimming, than their wealthier peers.
Investment in sports has long been overly concentrated on elites, at the expense of the grassroots where the prize is more likely to be fun than fame or riches. This longstanding injustice was amplified by Covid rules that closed community facilities while top clubs stayed open. Millions of children have missed out on PE lessons over the past year, with online classes a poor substitute. Last month, a committee of MPs heard that around a quarter of community sports clubs may never reopen. People who have lost the habit of attendance may not take it up again, and the safety challenges may be too great for groups dependent on volunteers or hired facilities. The £100m National Leisure Recovery Fund was not sufficient to make up for local authorities’ losses. Thousands of pools and sports centres are said to be under threat, with nearly all councils expecting to make further cuts.
With restrictions now lifted and evenings lengthening, the #ReturnToPlay campaign launched last week by Sport England must be welcomed. So must additional government funding for sports including cricket, and a promise by the Football Association to fund pitch improvements. The prime minister’s experience of being ill with Covid is said to have brought home to him the importance of exercise. Parks, sports pitches, outdoor pools and recreation grounds have rarely been more heavily used than over the past year, while so much else has been shut. Investment in their upkeep and improvement should be prioritised; Hull city council’s decision to refurbish a lido is a bold example of what is possible.
But organised sport and leisure are only part of the overall picture. Games and competitions are important because they bring pleasure and a sense of achievement as well as improving health. But they are not the only way – or even the most important way – in which people can keep in shape. Even before the pandemic, around 25% of British adults were defined as almost completely inactive, meaning they exerted themselves for less than 30 minutes a week. Encouraging them to take up walking, cycling or gardening should be part of any strategy. Taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator may sound like boring advice. But the evidence is overwhelming: sitting still for long periods is unhealthy. Muscles, including hearts, need to be put through their paces. Increasing physical activity of all kinds, so that our society does not slide further into immobility, should be a central aim of pandemic recovery plans, and one that is properly resourced.