Written by Juliane Rausch, research associate of Project PRESFUL.
The global pandemic raises a lot of issues, politicians need to act under very special circumstances. Nevertheless, sport and the importance of movement and exercise were not enough taken into account. Current studies show the dramatic results of this lack of strategy. Measures need to be taken now.
There is a lot at stake
The global outbreak of Covid-19 has led to a world-wide decrease of physical activity in general, weight gain and loss of physical fitness. Many young people are losing the support system that sports provided for them.
An interim balance of a current German study on the impact of Covid-19 on the movement behaviour of children states that the physical activity of young people decreased significantly during the period of contact restrictions in April 2020. The group of children who hardly exercised at all during this time increased fivefold to about 25 percent. This is particularly dramatic given the fact that children and adolescents in Germany were not moving enough even before the crisis: 80 percent do not meet the WHO’s recommendations for physical activity. It is well established that physical activity is an important protective factor for the healthy development of young people and may have an important impact on personality development. Physical education and club sport make a very important contribution to promoting things like dealing with victory and defeat, cultivating friendships, settling conflicts and controlling impulses.
Around one third of the young people in the study said they were more worried and less satisfied with life in times of the pandemic. This deterioration in well-being was proven to be accompanied by a decrease in physical activity, which forms a vicious circle: Less movements leads to decrease of well-being leads to lack of movement, etc.
Social inequalities worsen the situation
Low-income families are especially vulnerable to these negative effects during the current pandemic, as they tend to have sub-standard accommodations and more confined spaces, making it difficult to engage in physical exercise. Material conditions such as flat size, access to a garden and the availability of sports materials, but also parental influence and parental encouragement to exercise become more decisive when all other sports opportunities are eliminated. As schools, sports lessons and sports clubs can no longer even out social inequality regarding access to exercise, social inequalities will increase.
These results are also reflected by a study of Sport England: While the proportion of children and young people reporting that they were active during the summer term 2020 fell by 2.3 percent in general compared to the same period 12 months earlier, the impact was a lot more significant for children from Black and Mixed backgrounds.
We can see inequality effects on the adults level as well: The proportion of adults classed as inactive increased by 7.4 percent, which represents over 3.4 million more inactive adults in England. The audiences who found it hardest to stay active include: People with long-term health conditions/disabilities, people from lower socio-economic groups, women, young adults (16–34-year-olds), Black adults, Asian adults and adults from other ethnic groups.
Ultimately, lack of financial resources due to fewer employee rates, especially among younger adults, may lead to a reduction in sports sector investment and could impact activities which cater for children and young people as well as adults: Uncertain employment and financial circumstances mean that fewer people will be in a position to make an ongoing financial commitment to participate.
The global community has adapted rapidly by creating online content tailored to different people. However, access to such resources is far from universal and may therefore not be able to compensate for these effects, even though it may have a positive impact on some.
Impacts on Sport socialization
Ultimately, after the German National Youth Sport Report socialization of sport and exercise has been impaired during lockdown measures. The loss of sporting opportunities and the decline in active sportspeople have led to fewer sport and exercise-related educational and socialization processes. This includes the attachment of children and young people to the institution of sports clubs. Meaning that children and young people may change their behavior and attitude towards sports, which cannot simply be reversed once the crisis is over. As a consequence, a decline in the proportion of children and young people in Germany who are active in sport and physical activity may be expected in the long-term.
In addition, the current pandemic and the taken social distancing measures have heavy physical and psychological impacts on society and children in particular. These effects may be even stronger for children and young people living in urban centers, where sporting activity is more strongly linked to club structures and school offers. As mentioned, these impacts are even higher for socially disadvantaged groups.
Governmental strategies handling the crisis – what about sports?
In view of these effects, many sports scientists criticize the strategies for dealing with the pandemic with regard to sports. The importance of sport is not seen enough by governments.
Some scientists are concerned with the lack of importance given to physical education in comparison to other school subjects. As Prof. Thiel from the Institute for Sports Science Tübingen states, while main subjects such as mathematics and German can once again take place in face-to-face lessons, physical education is left out. And this despite the fact that the danger of infection is even lower in physical education than in the classroom, as long as the distancing measures are observed, because the distances can be kept even better in gymnasiums or outdoors. However, there is no clear governmental concept of how physical education classes can be held again in presence. “The protection against infection, which is supposed to protect us, simultaneously leads to the risk of illness. This is paradoxical.”
Another point of criticism is the handling of sports and sport clubs within lockdown measures. Prof. Froböse, professor of sports science at University of Cologne outlines that according to regional opening plans, sport is not considered as a priority in most areas. He states that “what we previously recognised as a guarantor of health, sport and exercise, we are just taking that away from people. And we are going to suffer very, very much from this. At the moment, we are producing the sick people of the future“.
Sports facing the crisis – what needs to be done?
In the face of a pandemic, people might say that there are more important issues to handle at the moment. Sure thing, it is up to politics to decide which measures to take to face the pandemic situation. But what we can see at the moment is that the current strategy – or lack of strategy – has a significant impact on children’s and everyone’s health. Giving up on sport concepts will make our current problems far worse in the future. So what needs to be done?
In general, long and short-term strategies need to be set in place.
Governments should expand online offerings to support physical activities at home. Nevertheless, it should stay in mind that not all groups will be able to benefit from these measures (s.a.).
Overall, sport interests, especially grassroot sport interests, need to be discussed with politicians and people in charge. Therefore, “we need a lobby for children and movement”, as Alexander Woll, who also directed a study about this subject, claims. This may be particularly important on long-sight.
Secondly, sport and exercise, especially given the difficult circumstances of the moment, are going to need long- and short-term investments. Prof. Marckhoff, the responsible researcher of the German study, claims a “kind of revitalization program for sport”. This contains initiatives in schools, clubs and everywhere one can intervene and control from the state side. These initiatives should actively bring children back into the clubs and back into sport in general. We should not believe that the current impacts and change in behavior will solve themselves, once our lives go back to normal. The German Youth Sport Report also notes that an information campaign may be needed to advise parents about the benefits of exercise and the risks of not being active. At the same time, more specific offers should be provided and subsidized by the state. These measures may demand public investments, but given the costs that the effects concerning the lack of exercise have for our health and therefore our health system, these costs may probably largely be outweighed on the long-term perspective.However, due to “autonomous, federal-decentral self-governing structures and a subsidiary self-image” in the sport and sport-education sectors, “the implementation of (long-term) counterstrategies cannot simply be ‘decreed’ top-down”. The overcoming of this crisis will therefore need a collaborative effort of all stakeholders: governments, sport organizations, sport clubs, health organizations, schools, teachers, coaches and players. Given what is at stake, we should all get moving.