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Source: Public Health England  

January 2021


Understanding and addressing inequalities in physical activity

Evidence-based guidance for commissioners


Executive Summary

This report presents the findings of a study, conducted at the University of Derby, which aimed to further understand levels of inequalities in physical activity across and within protected characteristic groups. It is hoped that this information will be useful for commissioners, from a variety of sectors, to proactively work towards equal opportunities for all individuals in health and wellbeing.

The study used 3 data sets; a realist review, a quantitative analysis of Sport England’s Active Lives Survey (2015-2019), and qualitative research with practitioners delivering physical interventions to communities with protected characteristics. We sought to identify enablers, barriers, and opportunities for increasing physical activity within and across inequality groups. The knowledge obtained has been deliberated in a series of
consultations with local commissioners.

The results identified a range of inequalities in individual’s physical activity levels from different protected characteristic groups and therefore changes are needed immediately to reverse these. Even before the COVID-19 restrictions, physical inactivity had been increasing and this is particularly the case for women. However, there were statistically significant positive improvements in physical activity for older adults. Other protected characteristics and showed some improvements in activity, however, these were not
statistically significant.

Three major themes have been identified for commissioners to consider as actions to reduce inequalities in physical activity:

• enablers, barriers and identifying opportunity
• community consultation, engagement, and partnership
• holistic approach for protected characteristics and intersectionality

The study has highlighted urgent action which is needed to ensure the physical activity workforce is diversely represented. Solutions should be sought in partnership with communities so that individuals can take ownership of what is being delivered. Diversity training which challenges own bias should be mandatory for all workforces. Opportunities for role models and peer to peer influencing, is important to foster autonomy and empowerment for all communities.

Interventions should be fluid to meet practical, environmental, social, and psychological individual needs. Aligned with understanding of demographic data to ensure intervention design is targeted and in direct consultation with the community to ensure interventions are needs driven. A range of accessible communication tools are needed across languages and literacy in forms such as braille and sign language to enable engagement. Different sectors should work together to enable mutual understandings of opportunities and best practice should be shared across communities, regions, organisations, and sectors. All sectors have a responsibility to promote and encourage physical activity.

Sharing learning of how interventions have engaged with communities in the
development, implementation, and evaluation stage can increase chances of being able
to replicate success across different populations and make in-roads on addressing
inequalities associated with physical activity.


Enablers for physical activity

This figure details enablers emerging from the research which help to persuade and sustain participation in physical activity. These range from social outcomes and contextual understanding to psychological support and understanding audience needs.


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