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

  • Some 100,000 more girls in England hit hour of activity a day
  • Around 200,000 fewer boys reach target, Sport England says

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.

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 with 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-year-olds 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 with 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 with 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.”

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

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 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.”


Sean Ingle Chief sports reporter

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A million people livestream Joe Wicks online 'PE lesson'
Parents seeking activities for children out of school due to Covid-19 turn to fitness guru

Lanre Bakare

23, Mar, 2020 @1:34 PM

Article image
Poorer children less active than wealthier peers, survey finds
Sport England survey finds 15% of children from poorest families are active every day, compared with 22% of richest

Aamna Mohdin

06, Dec, 2018 @1:11 PM

Article image
Joe Wicks ends live PE lessons after helping millions keep fit
Fitness guru who made his name online during lockdown has donated £580,000 of advertising revenue to NHS charities

Jim Waterson

22, Jul, 2020 @6:58 PM

Article image
Joe Wicks completes 24-hour workout for BBC Children in Need
Fitness coach raised more than £1.5m in live event featuring celebrities and schoolchildren

Caroline Davies

13, Nov, 2020 @12:53 PM

Article image
Black children missing out most on physical activity in England, survey finds
Activity levels have fallen and inequalities have widened during pandemic, says Sport England

Sally Weale Education correspondent

09, Dec, 2021 @2:29 PM

Article image
Daily Mile gets £1.5m to boost fitness in English primary schools
Sport England funding to pay for major expansion of back-to-basics child exercise scheme

Sally Weale Education correspondent

17, Dec, 2018 @5:54 PM

Article image
Optimism that UK gyms and leisure centres could reopen in July
Gyms and leisure centres could open across the UK in July but full contact sports at grassroots level may have to wait until September

Sean Ingle

19, May, 2020 @8:30 PM

Article image
Joe Wicks and KFC recipes among UK's top Google 2020 searches
The exercise guru is joined by fast food tips, the WAP lyrics and afternoon tea delivery high on the search engine’s Year in Search snapshot

Rebecca Smithers

09, Dec, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Celebrity fab abs: who’s top of the lockdown dance fitness classes?
Whether it’s dancing with Oti Mabuse or hopping with Marcus Rashford, our reporter has the numbers and abs to find out who is Joe Wicks’s biggest rival

Zoe Williams

15, Jan, 2021 @2:44 PM

Article image
Getting girls active is key to future of women's sport, say coaches | Sean Ingle
Athletes and administrators warn that gains at the top will be lost if attention is not paid to the grassroots

Sean Ingle

25, May, 2020 @7:00 AM