Let’s get down on it. If the UK has a sport-and-exercise problem, then it is a problem not so much of youthful indolence but of ageing unsuccessfully in these, our not-modern-enough times. Sport England tells us that formal inactivity – we are talking here about those NOT doing 150 minutes of moderate intensity sport per week – defines much of the Third Age. Some 30% of those in the bracket 65-74 are inactive; some 48% in the 75-84 group; and 71% among the over-85.

As Dr. Sharon Moalem says in his book The DNA Restart:

“If you stop moving intensely (sic), what you’re telling your body is that it’s time to stop being a burden on others – it’s time to die”.

Whatever this older generation needs, it is not likely to be faster stairlifts.

Now obviously the incidence of impairment or illness can naturally limit the size of the active grey population. But we ask ourselves here : if we can age well only by taking more exercise then which are the features and factors inhibiting sport-and-exercise activity among those greys?

For formal sport, for instance, offers so many putative benefits:

• Comradeship and an escape from isolation
• The prospect of accomplishment and recognition via targeted performance improvements
• Reinvigorated wellbeing, mental and physical
• Enhanced physical appeal to partners, current and potential
• Liberation from daytime TV adverts about the cost of funerals

And yet, the evidence from sports statistics bodies suggests that the applied appetite for activity shifts very little from year to year.

This said, let’s make the following assumptions:

• Attitudes to sports participation will to some extent be conditioned by the experience of sports spectating, either live or via media
• There may well be concerns about tariffs and availabilities : Can I afford to join a local club and are local facilities good enough (and welcoming enough)?
• Contact sports might be easily deemed and damned as too dangerous for some
• The opportunities for 65+ women may not be as good as they are for 65+ men
• Sporting heroes – of a kind potent enough to inspire participation – tend to be younger and consequently perhaps less appealing (in this sense) to the Third Ager

Let’s recall too that there are already 12 million people aged over-65 in the UK. Soon 20% of the entire population will be in this tribe.

Meanwhile, some 40% of all NHS spend is devoted to the conditions / pathologies of the over-65s. (Nuffield Trust)

In other words, literally mobilizing this grey generation would seem essential if we are, as a society to:• Keep control of naturally swelling health care costs
• Reduce obesity and avoidable frailty among the elderly
• Make sport a genuinely national activity – expected and facilitated to be pursued by all ages throughout all the decades
• Maximise the ROI of formal sports spend in the UK while liberating new and lucrative opportunities for event sponsorship.

With these thoughts in mind, The Sports Ministry has been road-testing some propositions about the world of sport among a national sample of over-65s.

Some preliminary findings:

• Only 4% of the over-65s know the name of the current Minister for Sport

• Two-thirds think that in too many sports today there exists an unhealthy win-at-all-costs mentality

• Two-thirds also agree that those organisations responsible for the management of our major sports – rugby, football, cricket, athletics, etc – are more interested in commercial sponsorship than the development of young players/athletes

• Two thirds think that public funds should be used to provide more grassroots sports facilities for local people rather than to financially support our top-ranking elite sports stars

• Again, two-thirds agree that football organization never do enough to stamp out racist and sexist abuse at matches

• More than 80% believe that major sporting events like the Olympics will never be free of athletes who cheat by using performance-enhancing-drugs

And so, we can discern quite a lot of negativity in prevailing grey attitudes – something that the world of professional sport ought to feel moved to dislodge.
For too much of the cultural identity of sport clearly carries disagreeable connotations for so many.
A generation that lived through the 60s and 70s might well have expected that our favourite game of football might have gained by now the maturity to rid itself of bad behaviour, outbursts of on- and off-field violence, incidents of what we might call diversity-trashing of all kinds.

But the campaign No Room For Racism, launched in 2019 and hardly the first of its kind, shows something of the distance still left to travel. Football has the grim distinction of having its own special chapter in our Criminal Justice System; as we write here, there are still around 1,800 Football Banning Orders in force. As we suggested in our blog Senility Soccer, one has sometimes to wonder if it is entirely appropriate for a grandfather to pass on his unbridled and unquestioning love of the game to his daughter’s sons.

One specially positive finding, however, was that that one in ten of the over-65s would like to possess a coaching qualification so that they could pass on skills to others in relation to their favourite sport. We can sense from this that there is a good deal of untapped engagement which again sporting authorities might well want to exploit.
Plainly, there are many reasons why those deemed to be in the category of “retired” might feel that the world of sport is not their world. It will be both sad and destructive if this feeling were to persist.

We will explore what needs to be done – how to rip off the grey tracksuit bottoms – in future blogs.

The Sports Ministry is a new consultancy aiming to make all sport more fair, more fun, more future-focused. It launches in June 2019.
The research findings are drawn from a poll commissioned by TSM in the Spring of 2019. The research agency is Deltapoll.


One Comment

  • How are they defining sport, and ‘active’? Don’t loads of this generation ‘just’ walk; and some of them get and stay fit (my 90-year-old mum mum) just being generally active (eg by gardening, shopping and/or walking the dog).

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