Walking to fitness, a step ahead of rest

Physical activity reduces the risk of serious disease, improves overall health and quality of life. If being physically active is the goal, how we get there is less important than actually arriving. In 2021 we found new ways of making sport and exercise work for us, and as a nation we are fitter and more physically active than we have been in over five years.

estricted movement and the shackles placed on sport resulted in a seismic change to how the nation exercised in 2020, the first year of Covid. We spilled from structured sport into individual and outdoor forms of exercise like walking, running and cycling and, in place of the gym, we logged onto virtual fitness classes.

Nationally representative research conducted by Teneo into the health and exercise habits of the nation explores whether the dramatic changes recorded in 2020 deepened, or whether we’ve drifted back to our old ways as the nation opened up in 2021.


One of the key indicators for the physical health of the nation is the number of people who lead sedentary lives claiming to take no form of exercise, a number that has hovered stubbornly around 25 per cent for six years. Something changed in 2021, this number plummeted to 20 per cent, the lowest it’s been since 2015. Sport Ireland, the HSE and others ran heavyweight campaigns encouraging people back into activity and these clearly landed. Over 200,000 adults got off the couch in 2021, which will increase their overall health but it will also have a positive and far reaching impact on our health system.

There is more good news, with two thirds of all adults believing their fitness levels either stayed the same or improved in 2021.

Those who experienced the greatest perceived increase in fitness levels were 18 to 24-year-olds, with only five per cent saying their fitness declined this year and this points to a more fitness and health conscious age group of young adults. Conversely, those aged over 55 had a less optimistic view of their current fitness levels with 46 per cent saying they ended 2021 less fit than they started it.

So dramatic were the changes to how we exercised in 2020 that some movement backwards was inevitable. Two thirds of adults have returned to the types of sport and exercise they engaged in pre-pandemic, but there is still a large cohort who have not. The leading reasons for not doing so are that they’ve discovered more rewarding and enjoyable options and a nervousness as a result of the ongoing Covid situation. A further one in five will not return to the type of sport and exercise they engaged with pre-pandemic.

There are two dominant factors driving our participation in sport and exercise. These are physical health and mental health.

Unsurprisingly, physical health tops the list with over three quarters of us exercising to be physically healthy. Never have we been more aware of the role that exercise has to play in managing the wave of mental health issues faced by our country. Six out of ten people are using exercise as a tool to manage their mental health with other motivating factors including social interaction (29 per cent), the love of sport (25 per cent) and the desire to look good (19 per cent).

An established trend over the 12 years of this research has been the migration from competitive and recreational sport into more general and flexible types of exercise. Overall, this decline arrested in 2021, but of those who play sport, the number of people choosing to play in structured leagues and competitions jumped to a five-year high with one in ten adults now playing competitive sport.

Walking surged in popularity in 2020, and it remains the nation’s favourite form of exercise, but its popularity diminished from 62 per cent to 51 per cent. But there are still over a quarter of a million more regular walkers than pre-pandemic. More women walk more often than men and its popularity increases as we age, given its low impact nature. But, despite these trends, it is the most popular form of exercise every way you look at it.

Gym and personal fitness, one of the hardest hit in 2020, is the nation’s second favourite form of exercise on 19 per cent. This is significantly below pre-pandemic levels where one in three adults used this as a form of exercise. One in five adults are gym members, but it is how we engage in personal fitness activities and the role of the gym that has changed at pace. Virtual fitness classes were unheard of until last year, but are now almost as popular as in-person classes. The traditional perception of a gym is now outdated. Hybrid offerings are becoming the norm and modern memberships include gym access and personal tuition delivered in person or virtually.

Cycling and swimming share third place on 17 per cent. Cycling, used as exercise but also transport, is hugely popular amongst men, so much so that it is Irish men’s joint second favourite form of exercise along with soccer. A quarter of all men regularly take to two wheels, representing a significant increase on pre-pandemic levels with it being most popular among men aged 18 to 24, perhaps driven by transport usage.

Swimming, and despite two years of interrupted service from pools across the country, remains hugely popular with activity levels being only slightly down on those reported in 2019.


Just how swimming has kept over 650,000 adults involved in the sport can be partly attributed to the outdoor swimming phenomenon that gathered momentum last year and divided the country over whether a dryrobe was a fashion item.

Running, the big winner in 2020 having doubled its numbers, has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels of participation with just under 10 per cent of the population running this year. It is equally popular with men and women but enjoys the greatest popularity among 35 to 55-year-olds who are typically time poor with family commitments and busy work schedules.

In 2020 we rushed to join new sports clubs that were less severely impacted by restrictions, but the number of new club memberships halved in 2021. One in six adults are members of a sports club with GAA, soccer, golf and tennis memberships being the most popular.

Volunteering rates have also dropped as a result of the pandemic. In 2019, 17 per cent of all adults volunteered at sport related initiatives. This has dropped to 13 per cent and with sports volunteering being worth an estimated €1.5bn to the economy, retaining and attracting new volunteers will be a high priority for not just sporting organisations, but also the government.

The research confirms that our relationship with sport and exercise is constantly evolving and we may never return to pre-pandemic levels and ways of exercising. Change brings both challenge and opportunity, but we begin 2022 on the front foot, fitter and more physically active than we have been for years. 


Rob Pearson is a Director in Teneo’s Sports Advisory team

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