TikTok and Joe Wicks help more girls get active amid pandemic, survey finds

Sean Ingle Chief sports reporter
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: The Body Coach/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: The Body Coach/Getty Images

The decline in children’s activity levels during the pandemic has been less severe than feared in England because of a boom in home fitness among girls, a major new report has found, with TikTok, boxercise and Joe Wicks all playing a part.

The impact of Covid was shown in the Sport England’s annual Active Lives Children and Young People survey, which found that the number of children who met the government’s guidance for an hour of activity a day dropped by more than 100,000 (2.3%) in the summer of 2020 compared to 2019.

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Boys bore the brunt of the fall – with just under 200,000 fewer doing 60 minutes of walking or other exercise a day in the summer term compared to the same period in 2019. That, the report explained, was because boys were more likely to take part in organised activities such as team sports, which were suspended or reduced.

However figures for girls spectacularly bucked the trend, with 100,000 more hitting the chief medical officer’s target in 2020 compared to the year before. Lisa O’Keefe, the insight director at Sport England, said the rise was particularly marked in five- and six-year-olds and girls at secondary school – with walking, cycling and home fitness all being significant factors.

O’Keefe told the Guardian: “We have seen a massive growth across the board of children taking part in what we call ‘fitness activities’ – which range from a Joe Wicks-type introduction to fitness right through to pilates, yoga, dance, and high intensity interval training.”

She said the Active Lives data showed that in 2019 the numbers of five- and six-yearolds doing such activity was “zero, essentially” – but after the initial lockdown in 2020 it had risen to 22%.

“Meanwhile the percentage of secondary school boys doing fitness activities has grown from 22% to 33% – while with girls it has almost doubled from 24% to 46%. That is a huge growth.”

TikTok was also included. “Definitely dance counts,” O’Keefe said. “So if children are using online platforms to share ideas and dance routines and copying those then that absolutely would count.”

However O’Keefe remains concerned that 2.3 million children (equating to around 31% of those aged four to 16 in England) did not manage an average of 30 minutes of activity a day – an increase of 2.4% (201,400) compared to 2019.

“The numbers are down, which is not what we wanted to see but given that the adult activity data showed a 7% reduction in the early stages of the pandemic it could have been worse,” she added. “It really is testament to a huge amount of work from parents, families and everybody involved in physical activity. And, on the flipside, you’re seeing a number of children, particularly older girls in those school years 7-11, who have absolutely embraced that opportunity to access fitness in the way that they want.”

O’Keefe also highlighted areas for concern, including a significant drop in the “physical literacy” of children and young people – a measure of their motivation and competence when it comes to exercise.

She said: “It’s just horrible to see that so many boys in the survey said their enjoyment levels were lower during the summer of 2020 than at the same time in 2019, because of the impact of the pandemic on their choice and variety of activity.

The growing activity gap among black children compared to other sections of the population is also of concern. “During the pandemic the biggest single biggest reduction in activity was amongst children and young people of Black heritage which was down 17% during the summer months,” O’Keefe said. “And it’s just about not just what’s happening now. It’s what might happen going forward. If we can’t find a way to help children and young people get back into activity, and then it will be harder to start to build that physical literacy again.”

The report was broadly welcomed by the sports minister Nigel Huddleston, who said the figures demonstrated “just how resilient young people have been in finding ways to keep active when their normal routines have been affected”.

However Ali Oliver, the chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, warned that the data highlighted the “urgent need” for a national plan to stop the decline in young people’s development and wellbeing. “Fewer than half of young people are averaging the chief medical officers’ recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity,” she added. “This risks storing up problems for the development and wellbeing of a generation.”