Age, Gender and Sport in England

I apologise for the change from the advertised topic for this post. I was planning to talk about the relationship between childhood experiences and involvement in sport, but have been sidetracked by writing up my PhD thesis which is now taking up most of my time. Part of this process has been to crunch some numbers from Sport England’s Active People Survey, a massive survey of over 150,000 people across the country, which tracks sports participation changes from year to year. I’m using the data to contextualise running within the full range of sporting and active leisure activities popular in the UK today. In particular I’ve been looking at how running compares to other sports in terms of participant demographics.

I have posted a simple ranking of sports in terms of the occupational class of their participants before, but now that I have analysed more up-to-date data that includes extra sports as well as taking into account gender and age, I thought I’d come back to it again in a bit more detail.

First of all, here’s a chart showing the relative gender balance (x-axis) and mean age (y-axis) of participants in a number of popular sports. The dark red lines indicate the mean age and gender for the sample. The fact that the mean gender is just over 0.4 indicates that more women than men responded to the survey. Sports to the left of the dark red line are more popular with women, sports to the right more popular with men. The further they are from the red line the stronger this bias is. The mean age of the sports (on the y-axis) runs from 22 (basketball) to 60 (golf).

Sports participation by gender and age

The next two charts show occupational category data sorted in two ways. Each shows the percentage of participants in a selection of popular sports that have professional or managerial jobs (NS SEC 1-2, shown in blue) and the percentage that have traditionally working class jobs or are currently unemployed (NS SEC 5-8, shown in orange). The first chart shows the sports sorted by the percentage of ‘higher status’* occupations, the second is sorted by ‘lower status’* occupations.

I’m not going to comment on these findings at this stage, other than to say that they reinforce a strange fact about running. On the one hand it is a highly accessible sport with low barriers to entry that attracts men and women in almost equal quantities; on the other it attracts a disproportionately high level of middle class participants. In fact running sits above golf, tennis and mountaineering in terms of its proportion of higher status occupation participants. This is a paradox my research seeks to shed light on, and something I will come back to in future posts.


* The use of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ here is related to the typical level of income and education of holders of these jobs – i.e. the socio-ecomomic status. They are not meant o imply that managerial jobs are inherently superior to working class ones.


Active People Survey:

Sport England. (2016). Active People Survey, 2014-2015. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8038,


2 thoughts on “Age, Gender and Sport in England

  1. Albert Kort

    Perhaps a silly question:
    You write about a paradox and try to find an explanation for this paradox. How do you try to find an answer, by interviewing lots of people who represent different social classes?

    • Neil Baxter Post author

      Hi Albert, yes that’s certainly an important part of it.

      Based on my interviews it seems part of the explanation is about early experiences of sport – middle-class parents are more likely to encourage/push their children into joining sports clubs outside of school, and many schools don’t offer a huge amount of athletics (outside of sports days), so without the involvement of parents perhaps some working class children don’t get the opportunities to develop a taste for running. But I think more importantly there are big differences in how people from different social backgrounds understand and relate to their bodies and to health. The middle class has always been much more engaged in health related activities – and this goes back a century or more. Another contributing factor may be that working class and middle class body ideals are quite different. There is some research which suggests working class men in particular favour strong, muscular physiques whereas middle-class men and women prefer to be lean, slim and toned. Obviously running is more useful to those who want the latter body shape than those who prefer a bulkier shape. Clearly there are many factors at work.

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