Running the Active Lives survey through the coronavirus pandemic

Hannah Hossein-Ali, Research Executive in Public Affairs, writes on the challenges of conducting the Active Lives survey for Sport England in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The author(s)

  • Hannah Hossein-Ali Public Affairs
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The spread of COVID-19 in 2020 has had obvious immediate consequences for public health, but the indirect impact on personal health and fitness has been less well explored. During the nationwide lockdown, the government introduced restrictions on social gatherings and spending time outdoors. This included the closure of leisure centres, gyms, playgrounds and sports clubs, the cancellation of sporting events, and a restriction to one session of outdoor exercise each day. The Active Lives Survey, run by Ipsos on behalf of Sport England, has been critical in monitoring the impact COVID-19 is having on people’s ability to stay active and their overall wellbeing across England.

Keeping the survey ‘active’ throughout lockdown

With working from home full-time becoming the new normal, and the suspension of face-to-face interviewing1, many businesses have had to re-think the ways they carry out research and adapt to a new reality. These challenges have made it more difficult to conduct research with the general public. However, the Active Lives survey uses a ‘push-to-web’ methodology2 involving four postal mailouts designed to encourage participants to complete the survey online, with the option to fill out a paper questionnaire if preferred. Push-to-web surveys are well suited to the current situation as respondents can complete the surveys from the comfort of their homes. We are grateful to our suppliers, Adare SEC and Restore Digital, who were able to enforce social distancing measures at their sites, thereby allowing the production of materials and the scanning of paper questionnaires to continue with minimal disruption.

Updating the questionnaire

In light of the restrictions arising from social distancing, many of the activities listed in the questionnaire could not be done during specific periods of time. Alongside Sport England, we considered the best way to address this in order to minimise frustration for respondents, while also protecting the integrity of the data. Practical considerations came into play: The Active Lives survey uses a mixed mode design and our paper questionnaires are printed in bulk at the start of each survey year. Changing just one of the survey instruments would have risked introducing bias into our data. We also wanted to ensure that we could be flexible to further change, given the uncertainty surrounding restrictions.

As such, in collaboration with Sport England, we made some minor changes to the online survey. We added an extra introductory screen to acknowledge that not all of the activities listed may be possible to do at the time. For questions about where an activity was usually done, we acknowledged that, depending on when the participant was completing the survey, some locations such as gyms and sports halls would not be relevant. Meanwhile, we adapted activity codes to make sure participants knew they could include TV and online-led classes, even though they may usually do these sessions in person.

Additional text was introduced to emphasise that people should include informal activities in their responses (since we believed these sorts of activities would become more important), such as playing in the garden with family. We also temporarily removed a couple of questions about activities that were unlikely to be possible for some time; for example, a question asking participants whether they had attended a live sports event in the past 4 weeks. This approach allowed us to stay flexible depending on which restrictions were removed and introduced by government.

Updating how the survey was communicated

We recognised that completing a survey probably wasn’t at the top of people’s list of priorities in the middle of a pandemic. To address this, we designed a leaflet with Sport England  (PDF) which was added to the Active Lives mailings from April 2020. The leaflet highlighted the importance of the data we are capturing, and informed people that by completing the survey they would help build a picture of the impact COVID-19 was having on people’s lives, their ability to stay active, and overall wellbeing. The leaflet also included a link to Sport England’s “Join the Movement” campaign, which offers advice and inspiration to help people stay active during the pandemic.

What has this meant for the Active Lives survey?

Throughout 2020, we have seen changes to our response rates and mode of completion on the Active Lives Survey, and these patterns have been exacerbated by the lockdown. For the current survey year, we have seen the average household response rate rise to almost 22%, ranging from 17.7% in the November survey wave to 25.3% in April, during the height of the lockdown. We have also seen the proportion of returns made online increase by six percentage points from 61.9% in year 4 of the study to 67.9% to date for the current survey year. While there has been a trend in the mode shifting online over the lifetime of the survey (see Table 1), this is a greater increase in the proportion of online returns than previously seen. We suspect that the increases in response rate and proportion of online completions could be due to people spending more time indoors during the pandemic and not being able to go outdoors to post a paper questionnaire. The additional COVID-19 leaflet may have also helped encourage people to take part.

Table 1: Household response rate and proportion of returns made online by survey year
Survey year Household response rate Proportion of online completions
Year 1 17.5% 52.2%
Year 2 17.5% 54.5%
Year 3 18.5% 58.4%
Year 4 18.8% 61.9%
Year 5 (to date) 21.6% 67.9%


As expected, we saw changes in participation rates for some activities, in line with government restrictions. The data also shows how different groups have been affected by the pandemic. For more information, please see the Active Lives Adult May 2019-2020 report on Sport England’s website.

Ipsos also carries out the Active Lives Children and Young People Survey for Sport England. This is an online survey completed by pupils in schools. During the summer term 2020, when school sites were closed to most pupils, we worked with Sport England to adapt the methodology, allowing the survey to continue and collect valuable information on the physical activity, attitudes and wellbeing of young people. More information about the approach will be available when the results are published in December 2020.


1 As cases of COVID-19 continued to rise across the UK in March 2020, Ipsos made the decision to suspend all face-to-face fieldwork on the 18th March, in step with the advice of the Market Research Society. This was to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff and the members of the public who make our research programmes possible.

2 For more information on push-to-web methodology, please see our push-to-web best practice guide.

The author(s)

  • Hannah Hossein-Ali Public Affairs

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