People are changing their exercise behaviours due to the increased cost of living – and the changes are unlikely to be reversed until household finances improve.
Substituting paid activities with free alternatives, such as walking or cycling, focusing on home-based activities and the cancelling of gym and sports memberships are among the actions reported by people, when asked about the changes they have made due to rising costs. A considerable number also reported having less time for physical activity due to increased work hours.
The findings come from a new report, published by Sport England, which examines how the cost of living crisis is impacting the sport and physical activity sector.
Called The rising cost of living and its impact on sport and physical activity, the report has been produced in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University and is intended to help activity providers understand the impact that rising costs is having on their participants.
According to the report, parents and carers of children and young people are also making changes to their child(ren)’s sport and physical activities because the 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.
Unsurprisingly, the report shows that people from the most deprived areas – and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – are more likely to have their levels of physical activity negatively affected by cost-of-living increases.
Facility providers are being hit too, reporting concerns regarding increases in utility costs. Many are responding by reducing sessions and increasing fees.
Cost of living pressures are also having an impact on the sport and physical activity workforce. People are volunteering less due to time constrains, meaning that other people are volunteering more due to demand.
In addition, paid staff, especially those with low wages or in casual positions, are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere, while some employers are considering redundancies and closures due to budget constraints.
The report included some good news too, however – the data highlights that the amount of people who are active is close to returning to pre-pandemic levels, demonstrating a level of resilience across the sector.
Nick Pontefract, Sport England’s chief strategy officer, said: “Today’s report shows that in common with much of the economy, the cost of living is impacting on affordability of physical activity and sport particularly for the most disadvantaged.
“While these headwinds inevitably impact all areas of life including work to increase physical activity and participation, the sector has been remarkably resilient and creative in sustaining opportunities for people to keep active.
“We also know there are plenty of low and no cost options for getting active, whether that’s running for free with parkrun, using outdoor gym equipment that can be found in many parks or simply going for a walk.
“At Sport England, we’re doing everything we can to support the sector through this time.
“This includes managing the Government-funded Swimming Pool Support Fund, a £60 million package to help keep public leisure facilities with swimming pools open, while we recently announced a £250m expansion into our place partnerships.
“This money is specifically aimed at the places with the greatest need, and where the impact of cost-of-living pressures will be most pronounced.”
The report was produced in partnership with a number of sector organisations, including the Sports and Recreation Alliance (SRA).
SRA’s Head of Research, Ricky Boardman, said: “The Sport and Recreation Alliance was pleased to play a leading role in developing this report alongside Sport England and other Sector Partners.
“In adopting a collaborative, cross-sector approach to the creation of the report, we were able to benefit from a diverse range of data and insight on the effects of the cost-of-living on the sector. This more collaborative method is something we will look to continue when assessing the impact of major societal issues on sport and recreation.
“The findings of the report bring into focus the challenges the costs of living have presented – and continue to present – across the sector, including issues around inequalities in participation, as well as on clubs and facilities, and the volunteers and professionals working within sport and recreation.
“The Alliance will continue to monitor the impact of the cost of living on our members and the sector more broadly, to help ensure vital sport and recreation can continue to be delivered to the nation.”
Despite the report suggesting that people are switching gym and sports memberships to free activities, the total number of people with a gym membership has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
Industry figures show that the total number of gym memberships in the UK hit 10.4m in 2019. While this dipped during the pandemic (2020: 8.3m, 2021: 9.6m) the number recovered to previous levels during 2022 (10.4m).
Commenting on the Sport England findings, Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “The continuing cost of living challenges we face have had an impact on the physical activity sector and the community it serves. Sport England’s report reinforces ukactive’s historic analysis that in some cases, energy costs have increased by over 200% for both public and private operators. Without the right financial support, some operators have been left with no choice but to raise membership prices to stay afloat.
“Despite these pressures, the sector continues to grow and receive huge demand for services, with parts of the sector reporting record numbers of membership driven by a growing consumer demand to manage health conditions and support their mental health.
“There are a range of cost-effective memberships available at budget gyms and local leisure centres to suit people from all backgrounds, starting from as little as £4 a week. Many operators have also adapted their offering to include shorter memberships for people to try before signing a longer contract, as well as spreading the cost.
“To support the sector and ensure people can feel the lifelong benefits of activity, we want the Government to support the essential services provided by gyms and leisure facilities. Through levers such as VAT relief, they can encourage sector growth as well as incentivising people to stay active. This support will reduce any financial burden being placed unnecessarily on consumers and will allow gyms to continue providing affordable options for people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and consumers to keep visiting the sites they need and love.
“We will continue to support the Government and its agencies to fully understand the size, scale, and value, both economic and social, of the fitness and leisure sector.”