“Sport must be a place where everyone can be themselves, where everyone can take part and where everyone is treated with kindness, dignity and respect,” recent guidelines for transgender participation in national and grassroots sport published by the UK sports councils states. These words resonate on so many levels. Sport can bring so much joy and enrichment. But to some it doesn’t feel like a place where they belong.
Presently, 62% of adults in England meet the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) guidelines of 150 minutes of physical activity a week with white males making up the largest percentage of that group. The lack of diversity in sports has been highly publicised in recent years and there now exists lots of data backing up the inequality in representation in sports participation in the UK.
There’s no doubt that the recent pandemic has had a negative impact on the activity levels of all minority and non-minority groups, however minority groups have definitely suffered the most.
We’re going to highlight some of the research into active adults across diverse groups, including women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), older people (over 55s), LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities to provide a better understanding of where the gaps are and why they exist.
Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds
One of the most ground-breaking reports was published in 2020 by Sport England. Called ‘Sport For All’, it provides a level of data which has never been collated before. The report looks at the sport and physical activity participation of adults (and children) from BAME backgrounds in England. The inequalities in activity levels between adults from different ethnic backgrounds are not new, but they aren’t improving.
Sport for All shines a spotlight on the deep rooted inequalities which mean that too many people from BAME backgrounds are missing out on the benefits of sport and physical activity. For example, just 56% of Black people and 55.1% of Asian people (excluding Chinese) reach the CMO’s recommended figure of 150 minutes of physical activity a week.
The figure is actually lower than that amongst black women. Sport England’s latest Active Lives report (2021) shows that only 48.5% of black women are meeting the recommended activity guidelines compared to 60% of all women and 59.6% of black men.
Walking, the gym and to a lesser extent running all feature as popular forms of exercise amongst BAME adults. Cycling is growing in popularity but its participation rates are still low compared to white British adults.
It is important to stress that BAME is a very broad term and it does not represent a homogenous group of people. When considering the barriers to getting active, you have to understand there is a complex backdrop of economic and health inequalities, such as confidence or knowing where to go, through to cost, lack of time and appropriate opportunity. There isn’t one single reason for inactivity levels within ethnic groups, however there are some overarching barriers.
Sport England’s research helps to clearly identify the undeniable link between inactivity and poverty and ethnicity and poverty in the UK. “People from Black, Asian, & Minority Ethnic backgrounds are seven times more likely to live in an urban area than someone from a White ethnic background. These geographical factors can contribute to, and perpetuate, some of the socioeconomic, social cohesion and social mobility issues that influence a person’s ability to engage in sport and physical activity.” Source: Sport For All, Sport England, 2020.
Racism and discrimination remain wider social issues in the UK which can also manifest themselves in sports and impact participation levels. Racism can take different forms in sports, from direct abuse and stereotyping to failure to accommodate cultural needs.
The generally lower level of involvement of BAME groups and communities in sport and physical activity is not confined to participation. It also extends to spectating, volunteering and official and administrative roles. The latter in particular results in less representation and influence at decision-making levels in sport.
There is some positive news. 11.9% of the Black population take part in team sports compared to 6.4% of the White British population, which gets us thinking about the community element of cycling. Being in a cycling club or community has similar benefits and positives to team sport, which could hopefully bring more BAME people into the sport.
People from BAME backgrounds are a young and growing population in the UK. By 2051 this group is projected to become 39.2% of the population (26.9 million people), a growth of 150% since 2011. If nothing changes to make sport more accessible and inclusive to such a large portion of our society, the percentage of the country’s population that is missing out on all the physical and mental benefits that sports can bring will be even greater than it is now.
The picture is rather bleak when you look at the UK’s disabled population. According to the Active Lives Adult Report 2020/21 by Sport England, there are 11.5 million disabled people in England, accounting for one in five (21 per cent) of the total population. This includes people with physical, visual and hearing impairments and people with learning difficulties.
The report found that disabled adults are almost twice as likely as non-disabled people to be physically inactive (43 per cent vs 23 per cent). Furthermore, it increases sharply the more impairments an individual has – 51% of those with three or more impairments are inactive.
When surveyed, however, four in five (78 per cent) disabled people would like to be more active. Source: Activity Alliance, Annual Disability and Activity Survey 2020-21.
So why are participation levels of disabled people in sport so low? Reasons include:
- Physical barriers – for example, a lack of or the cost of adapted equipment, limited access to facilities during the pandemic
- Logistical reasons – such as a lack of transport or inappropriate transport options
- Psychological reasons – for example, lack of confidence or other people’s attitudes towards them
Unsurprisingly most of us slow down as we get older so reaching that 150 active minutes a week target can become a stretch. Data from Sport England’s Active Lives Survey shows that people become less physically active the older they are – 70.1% of people aged 16 to 24 were physically active in 2020, compared with 37.6% of people aged 75 years and over, and it’s at 75 where the biggest drop off in activity levels occurs. The 65-74 age bracket is still relatively active (57.3% compared to 61.8% of 55-64).
Like all groups, the pandemic has really hit the number of over 55s that are regularly active, reversing the recent upward trend.
“Activity levels had been growing strongly amongst the 55-74 and 75+ age groups prior to the coronavirus pandemic. While activity levels have broadly been maintained in the 55-74 age group, many of the gains among the 75+ age group have been lost. This may be linked to the requirement for many of those aged 70+ to shield during the earlier stages of the pandemic and a continued nervousness of mingling indoors or in crowded outdoor spaces.” Source: Sport England Active Lives Adults Survey, May 2020-2021
We looked briefly at the improvement in cognitive function and memory in our blog on cycling and mental health, so we know that there are great additional benefits to this portion of the population.
In addition to the pandemic, reasons for declining activity levels amongst the over 55s include risk or fear of injury, limited disposable income, isolation and not having someone to exercise with or discomfort and pain, particularly if they haven’t kept up an active lifestyle. All of which can be overcome with the right mindset and access to information.
When asked, 13 million women said they’d like to do more sport and physical activity, and under half of those women aren’t currently active at all. In fact almost 40% of women are not active enough to ensure they get the full health benefits from exercise (Source: Sport England Active Lives Adults Survey, May 2020-21). So why don’t more women exercise?
There are a mix of practical and psychological barriers that stop women from being as active as they’d like to be. Access to facilities, lack of money, lack of time and childcare can all prove challenging. Add onto that a fear of judgement, lack of self confidence and body image as well as concerns around personal safety, sexual harassment and abuse, and it’s no wonder many women don’t exercise.
The gender gap observed in physical activity levels holds true across nearly all ethnic groups too, however, for Asian and Black African women the gap is even more pronounced. For example, 61% of White British women are active compared to only 41% of Pakistani women, 46% of Bangladeshi women, 48.5% of Black women and 52% of Indian women. Source: 2020 Sport for All Report by Sport England
The traditional white male dominated culture of sport is changing, but more needs to be done to open up sports and make them more accessible to all.
Non-Binary and Transgender and Sexual Orientation (LGBTQ+)
Compared to other minority groups, data on the physical activity levels of the LGBTQ+ community has only relatively recently been researched in the UK. The Non-Binary People, Sport & Physical Activity report 2019 [link], produced by Pride Sports and Sport England provides some good insight and helps establish data, barriers and recommendations of how we move forward.
The LGBTQ+ community continues to face homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other barriers to participating in physical activity, which negatively impacts the numbers taking part in sport. The report concludes that “while sports bodies are content to take positive action around equality in general there appears to be hesitancy on taking action related to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
It is estimated that around 0.4% of the UK’s population identify as non-binary. This number is on the rise particularly amongst young people. Research conducted by the National LGBT Partnership in 2016-7 found that people who identified as something other than male or female were some of the most inactive people amongst LGBTQ+ populations (64%). Many actively avoid gyms (42%), clubs or social groups (39%) and public spaces (16.9%) – all places where people are active – due to concerns around safety as well as changing facilities.
The gender binary is very prevalent within contemporary British culture, and sports and physical activity are traditionally gendered activities. Not only are many sports clearly categorised as male or female, but so too are changing spaces, toilets and some activity spaces. This current organisation along a rigid gender binary can result in amplified experiences of exclusion for non-binary participants.
The Non-Binary People, Sport & Physical Activity report 2019 produced by Pride Sports and Sport England is a great report with lots of practical recommendations for sports and sporting clubs to make themselves more inclusive.
Many of the challenges faced by the transgender community are similar to those in the non-binary community, such as binary sports categories and changing facilities. Discrimination, harassment and stigmatisation are also very prevalent and prevent many transgender people from being physically active.
There are also big barriers for this community at the elite level, with heated debates in the media and amongst elite athletes around participation of trans-athletes at the highest level. There exists strict eligibility criteria for them to meet to be able to compete meaning there are very few elite trans-athletes. With a lack of visible role models for the transgender (and wider LGBTQ+) community it is little wonder that participation levels remain low at grassroots level.
The data itself and the identification of barriers shows that not all sport is actually for all. Many opportunities are limited to those from higher socio-economic classes, for cis-men, or for those with white skin. While sport is trying its best to be inclusive, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and the end result is that some groups feel marginalised or even excluded. There are synergies across sports, but then each sport has to make its own assessment of where the barriers are and which recommendations they should take on in order to be more inclusive.
The research raises awareness of the lack of diversity in sports and makes it very hard to ignore. This data is a great step forward but without action nothing will change.
We appreciate that we’ve provided a lot of data and highlighted some of the barriers that diverse groups encounter when it comes to participation in sports, and that this isn’t exhaustive. What we haven’t done here is provide solutions. Future blogs will dive deeper into this, but one of the solutions we’re excited about is of course Cycle Together!
Cycle Together Founder and CEO, Biola Babawale explains, “We want to reach those diverse groups across the UK and help them connect with like minded individuals in cycling clubs to get more people cycling. The research out there shows there are large sections of the population who aren’t currently active and they are missing out on the physical and mental health benefits that sport can bring to them. We know that cycling in groups and clubs brings additional benefits to mental wellbeing so we want to encourage participation, first and foremost in cycling, to share that joy.”
To find your nearest cycling club, check out our Club Locator tool.