Active Lives: Exploring Physical Inactivity in London

As part of our Insight series covering the release of Sport England’s Active Lives Year 1 Report, this article explores physical inactivity and how different factors can be seen to impact on inactivity rates at national, regional and borough level.

Sport England’s Active Lives survey defines physical inactivity in accordance with the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) recommendations; in sessions of at least 10 minutes, individuals who are physically active for more than 150 minutes a week are defined as ‘active’ while those who complete less than 30 minutes of physically activity a week are considered ‘inactive’. Individuals who are active for more than 30 minutes but less than 150 minutes per week are classified as ‘fairly active’. Activities included in the survey range across sporting activities, fitness, gardening, walking, cycling and dance.

The National Picture

National findings suggest that there is a disparity in levels of inactivity based on demographic factors such as gender, age, disability, ethnicity, social status and education. Across England, gender marks a clear divide in inactivity prevalence, with 23.6% of the female population classified as physically inactive, compared to 20.2% of the male population.  Ageing also indicates an increased likelihood of inactivity, with 14.1% of the population aged 16-24 inactive compared to 24.1% of those aged 65-74. Moreover, disabled people with 3 or more impairments (44.4%) are substantially more likely to be inactive than people with no impairments (17.9%).

The Picture in London 

In London, although we will be unable to explore the data in great depth until the Active Lives Interactive tool is released later this year, we have been able to analyse overarching patterns in inactivity by borough. At city-wide level, London (22.2%) demonstrates higher than national average (22%) levels of physical inactivity.

The map below presents overall inactivity levels by borough. Areas of high inactivity are predominantly found in the north-east and north-west regions (shown as light blue) while areas of lower inactivity are found in the central and southern boroughs (shown as dark blue). Barking and Dagenham (30.8%), Newham (30.4%) and Hounslow (27.6%) are found to have the highest levels of physical inactivity. On the other hand, Islington (14.9%), Lewisham (16%) and Richmond upon-Thames (16%) present the lowest levels of physical inactivity.

*Source: Sport England Active Lives 2015/16

Factors Affecting Physical Inactivity

Despite not yet having access to the full data set at this time, it has been possible to analyse patterns in inactivity based on borough level educational attainment* and economic inactivity** rates. While not necessarily indicators of physical inactivity, social and demographic factors such as these can help to build our understanding of the reasons behind prevailing trends in participation in physical activity. The data visualisation below presents an overview of physical inactivity rates against educational attainment and economic inactivity.

This data is interactive, click on a borough/region name to filter by borough or region (hold shift to select more than one area). To expand to full size, click the expand icon in the bottom right corner.

Analysis of the data (chart 2) indicates that the highest educational qualification an individual achieves impacts on their propensity to be physically active. At borough level, as the average level of educational attainment increases, the average level of physical inactivity decreases. For example, Barking and Dagenham has both the highest level of physical inactivity (30.8%) and the highest proportion of residents with no qualifications (27.9%).

Similarly, based on the relationship between economic and physical inactivity presented in chart 3 below, it could also be argued that, on average, the higher the proportion of economically inactive residents, the more likely it is that inactivity levels will also be high. However, this is widely dependent on the demographic break-down of economically inactive sub-groups. An example is Islington which has the lowest level of physical inactivity in London (14.9%), but a higher than average level of economically inactive residents (23.7%). The reason for this is that 38.1% of Islington’s economically inactive residents are classified as students (NOMIS, September 2016), traditionally a highly active demographic group. Should a borough exhibit higher levels of retired, long-term sick, or other economically inactive residents, it could be expected that the impact would be the opposite, a higher proportion of physically inactive residents.

While the initial data release allows us to explore inactivity to certain extent, with the release of the Active Lives Interactive tool due in late Spring we look forward to analysing inactivity and other measure at a greater depth.

The next article in our Active Lives series explores the data on Sport Spectating, the first of its kind to be released by Sport England. For further London data, take a look at our London Physical Activity and Sport Profile 2017


About the Author:

Tristan Farron-Mahon is an Insight Officer at London Sport. Tristan is an expert in local area data analysis and interpretation for the purpose of creating new understanding to support the development of physical activity and sport across London.


*Educational attainment: defined as the highest qualification achieved from ‘no qualification’ through to ‘Level 4+’ qualifications.

**Economic inactivity: defined as residents who are classified as economically inactive based on one of the following sub-groups:

  • Student
  • Looking after family/home
  • Temporary sick
  • Long-term sick
  • Discouraged
  • Retired
  • Other