The Pandemic and the Effects on Activity

As I wrote about in my recent book, physical activity is deeply political:

“Promoting physical activity requires suggesting (and sometimes dictating) what people do with their time, their money, their bodies and their minds. By espousing meanings of, reasons for, and policies to promote physical activity, a vast array of experts, from policy makers to academics and health promoters are, without hyperbole, engaged with the meaning of life.”

It’s unusual to emphasise something in parentheses, but

so unusual has this pandemic been,

so devastating the effects,

and so wide-ranging the interventions, that it is worth reflecting on.

The first three months of this pandemic has exposed many failures by governments to implement good policies to combat the virus. At the same time, the ways physical activity is organised and arranged has been the subject of intense debate. Here’s a rough chronology …

Concrete interventions deployed to keep people from moving too close. Rules, signs, instructions all deployed to manage people and their movement

Tensions between “stay at home” messages and “exercise for health” messages

The rationale of being active for “mental health” being emphasised by many spokespeople, seemingly to alleviate the built-up tensions of people confined for too long.

Anecdotal increases in people exercising in parks, with police required to manage belligerents who are not exercising (enough)

Anxiety about social distancing (which should really be called physical distancing).

The subsequent guilt of being out for too long, or shaming of those who are out for too long

Possible annoyance at others not remaining distant enough.

Possible shaming of those seen to be flouting the rules.

Urgent revisions made to cycling routes and pedestrian routes in some cities.

The erosion of at least some goodwill about distancing.

Academics have also responded. For example:

A litany of programmes and promotion material to get people active during lockdown

Academic journals dedicating issues on future of sport (in Managing Sport and Leisure and European Journal of Sport Management)

Intense questions about whose authority counts. For example, criticisms of lockdown “PE” on youtube

Most recently, in Ireland, “young people are being asked to choose having sex online or over the phone to stop the spread of Covid-19.”

The imposition of various degrees of limitations on all of us, and the transgressions that will inevitably occur will be testing for everyone. It is undoubtedly the case that we all need to manage our physical activity in different ways for the (un)foreseeable future. This will require heightened attention to sympathy, tolerance and respect for our own physical activity AND inactivity, as well as others’. Good luck to us all!

Joe Piggin

There is nothing inherently good about physical activity

Unfortunately people move, act and perform for all sorts of awful, harmful, destructive reasons.
It’s physical assault by bullies, thugs and criminals.
It’s peer pressure from body shamers.
It’s using exercise to punish children.
It’s 69% of children getting concussion from a school sport.
It’s your golf game during a pandemic.
It’s commuting employees putting themselves in harm’s way.
It’s marching for a racist ideology.
It’s “law enforcement” shooting children dead and police brutality.
It’s worker exploitation.

So there is nothing inherently good about moving your body. We need to advocate and promote positive movement. Since we imbue movements with specific goals and meanings, we need to look out for and confront physical activity which oppresses and marginalizes. We need to condemn activities which hinder the flourishing of human potential.

‘It’s a lockdown, but don’t stop exercising’

GUEST CONTRIBUTION: Matthew ‘Tepi’ Mclaughlin, @HealthTepi, PhD Candidate @Uni_Newcastle Chair ISPAH Early Career Networktepi


‘It’s a lockdown, but don’t stop exercising’ is the message from the UK Government during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

On the back of this stance, a few people have been quick to suggest this may increase the nation’s physical activity. Or it could go the other way.

Tweet 1

I suggest it will decrease during lockdown.

Personal Case Study of the Mclaughlin Family

Our family unit currently consists of myself and my parents, whilst I am home from Australia (where I am doing my PhD and live with my fiancée).

Dad works at a busy café, regularly sending me screenshots of how he’s done 10,000 steps whilst at work. The café is closed due to the Government directive.

Mum’s a gym bunny, her classes have closed at the gym.

I cycle 26km a day commuting to work, I now walk from my bedroom to the office.

Last week, we set up home gym in the back garden. We’re lucky, we could afford the equipment. We have the skills to set up a safe exercise circuit. We’re all motivated. We don’t have children to look after. We have a back garden. The weather has so far been kind.

We’ve been out each day since.

Photo: Mclaughlin family undertaking the daily workout to start the day, 25/03/2020.

So yes, it may appear we’re ‘exercising’ more….but I suggest we’re doing less overall physical activity during this pandemic. Between us, we’re doing less active transport and less occupation-related physical activity.

Some reasons why we won’t be more active during this pandemic

Reason 1: We might exercise more during our leisure, but we’ll do less active transport and work related physical activity.

Reason 2: Gyms are closed, so exercise routines are disrupted.

  • Do people have the skills to be active outside a gym? I.e. they don’t have the ‘physical literacy’ to be active at home
  • YouTube videos may partially replace a gym, but they likely won’t achieve the same intensity of or duration of physical activity as a gym visit
  • Some may think this is an opportune time for a ‘break’ from exercise

 Reason 3: The privileged might, but others won’t exercise more.

  • Some may have a ‘spare room’ or a garden to exercise in, many won’t.
  • Some may have access to equipment, many won’t.
  • Some may not normally have to work, so may already have been physically active at home (e.g. home gym)

 Reason 4: Many of us have been instructed to leave the house under no circumstances, not even for exercise

  • “Extremely vulnerable” people are instructed not to leave the house, and that list is long


Data from Fitbit suggests a decline in step count last week of 9% in the UK compared with the same time last year. It looks as though I was right, unfortunately.

Post the Coronavirus pandemic, will physical inactivity be recognised as a pandemic?


In the long term, this may have some unanticipated benefits. The ‘stage’ that physical activity has been given by politicians is bigger than ever, just by being mentioned. The negative emotions people feel from this lockdown may last, people may attribute them to “not getting outside” or “not moving about”. I suggest Dr Karen Milton may be right:

milton tweet


Physical activity and The Great British “Lockdown”

Today was the first day of the British “lockdown”. Seeing the devastation wrought upon countries such as China, Italy and Spain, the UK government has finally(!) taken more serious steps to overcome the Coronavirus. Their official advice is below.

gov lockdown

While the advice / rules are generally clear, there is still some confusion – for example, what counts or what does not count as essential. More detailed advice about leaving the house was provided in a document on the government’s website:

gov 2

In reply to a journalist’s question about how much running, cycling or walking people should do each day, one government minister replied that they should do what “ordinarily would have done”. So if this advice is followed, there won’t be an upsurge in the nation’s physical activity levels, since many/most in the population don’t ordinarily meet government guidelines for physical activity anyway.

After more than a week of very limited movement outside of home, I decided to go for a walk after lunch to a local park. Here’s my thoughts on that. Rewatching the video I noticed I said the UK government still “encourage” exercise … but in hindsight, that was probably too strong … “allow” exercise is probably closer to the truth!

Part 1: Avoiding Other People

Part 2: At the Park

Part 3: The End of the Walk

I am not sure what the future holds for these sorts of excursions. It looks like the situation in the UK `is only getting worse with more than 80 people dying today from the virus. It is quite possible even walking, running and cycling for exercise will need to be eliminated for a while. Keep safe everyone!
Joe P

Why are we thinking about physical activity?

Why is so much attention given to physical activity? Why do we care about it? Why is it in policy?

To answer this, in my book, I argue that we should think of physical activity as a specific political discourse.  Discourses are forms of knowledge, so they govern the way a topic can be meaningfully talked about or reasoned about, and they influence how policy ideas are put into practice. So instead of thinking about physical activity simply as human movement, from a policy perspective it is much more than that. Here is a brief explanation of my thinking …

The physical activity discourse, I argue, has not emerged out of nothing. Other discourses, like ingredients, have facilitated the escalation in physical activity’s rise to prominence and legitimacy. For example, consider the obesity epidemic which has framed human bodies as susceptible to specific judgement and surveillance (see Gard and Wright, 2005). The rise of surveillance technologies which affect both leisure and work has allowed physical activity to be measured ad infinitum (and ad nauseum).

Of course, the discourse does not necessarily appear with all these ingredients. It needs a raft of committed “bakers” who will devote time and attention to escalate and seek legitimacy for the physical activity problem. Networks are needed, most obviously manifesting as scientific associations of physical activity. And along with these scholarly societies come links to industry and the state.

And after scientific elements establish legitimacy, the physical activity discourse is continually built upon and deployed in different spheres, with frontiers in all directions. Indeed, this framework for thinking about the physical activity discourse is not intended to be static. There will be specific contexts which frame physical activity in unique ways. That is part of what makes the discourse a potentially powerful policy driver. Its hybridity and its potential omnipresence as a matter of concern (affecting all domains of human life) means that it can be potentially infused into all sorts of policies.

The model below shows how a range of “forms of knowledge” work together (and / or separately) to produce what we know about physical activity (particularly in many Western, developed societies).

The Physical Activity Discourse

While I suggest biomechanics is an essential discourse, it does not carry a great amount of disciplinary weight when physical activity is researched, analysed or justified. Human movement without values added is not enough to produce and sustain the physical activity discourse. More influential is the biomedical discourse, which has made connections between physical activity, health, and death rates. (There’s more in the book on this!). Various sustaining discourses shown above allow for physical activity to be deployed at different times in texts, policies and programmes by a wide array of different organisations. You can see “health”  is only one of many discourses that sustains current concern about it. Many other discourses contribute now too.

This discourse has real implications. Correlating insufficient physical inactivity with all manner of economic, health, environmental, and inter-personal outcomes leads to a number of flow on effects, including the production of new experts, new expectations, authoritative organisations and specific ideas about social order.

I argue that by seeing viewing physical activity in this way – as a discourse made up of the interplay of other discourses (and not simply as a means to promote public health) – we might better appreciate how the swirling and growing mass of concern about physical activity affects us all.

cover piggin

Joe Piggin

A new definition of physical activity

In my book, I offer a new definition of physical activity. Definitions are important because they set the scene for everything that follows. I propose that:

physical activity involves people moving, acting and performing within culturally specific spaces and contexts, and influenced by a unique array of interests, emotions, ideas, instructions and relationships.

A new definition is needed to move the concept of physical activity beyond it’s previous entrenchment in biomedical and epidemiological discourse. Previous definitions are too narrow and therefore insufficient to account for the complex nature of physical activity. There is an opportunity to open up the discourse of physical activity to be more inclusive of the wide variety of academic disciplines that study it, the increasing number of governmental departments that address it, and most importantly the enormous range and depth of human experiences which are attached to it.

Some historical context

Perhaps the most well-known and most cited definition of physical activity comes from Caspersen, Powell and Christenson (1985), who describe it as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure” (p. 126). It is important to note that this definition is authoritative within academia. Caspersen’s et al. 1985 article has been cited 8138 times according to Google Scholar (at the time of writing), an indication of its popularity. Other slight variations on this definition are also popular. This definition informs many health policies around the world (Australian Government, 2011; WHO, 2018). In 2018, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Strategy on Physical Activity deployed a slight variation of this definition – instead of activity resulting in energy expenditure, the WHO claimed that “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure” (p. 14). In any case, I argue the sentiment remains the same.

The definition by Caspersen and colleagues is confined to, and thereby constrained by, epidemiology discourse. Indeed, the first sentence of their 1985 article declares that “The epidemiological study of any concept or event requires that the item under investigation be defined and measured” (p. 126). And so, in describing the “elements” of physical activity, the focus is on “bodily movement, skeletal muscles, energy expenditure, kilo-calories” and a positive correlation with “physical fitness” (p. 127). And so the definition is heavily laden with a particular type of science. The aim here is not to allege Caspersen’s definition and description of physical activity is insufficient for epidemiology. However, there are various reasons why the definition falls short of articulating what physical activity (really) is.

Towards a new definition …

First, I argue that physical activity is not the sole domain of epidemiology. The British Medical Journal describes epidemiology as “the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why” (BMJ, 2019). By framing physical activity solely in relation to disease-potential and disease management, much is marginalised and ignored.

Caspersen’s et al definition is dis-integrated and exclusionary. It is dis-integrated because it prioritises some aspects – the anatomical (bodily movement, skeletal muscles), physiological (energy expenditure) – to the exclusion of others.

The cerebral, psychological and emotional aspects of physical activity are not accounted for. The elements of physical activity by Caspersen et al omit any reference to personal motives, emotions or thought. Struggle, pain, joy, achievement to name a few are inherent components of physical activity (either as motivations, outcomes or both), and so need to be accommodated. To illuminate this point, consider how Brian Pronger’s (2002) could not reconcile the embodied emotion and amazement of his active childhood with the technological knowledge of his university studies in physical education:

“I wrote about ‘the powerful source,’ the wonder and infinity that I discovered in swimming. And I said that when I started to study physical education, that dimension was completely absent from everything we were taught. The technological education I was receiving rendered the wonder second. And as I survey the array of scientific, government and commercial texts on physical fitness, I hear only silence in this regard. The technology of physical [fitness] seems deaf to this dimension of life. So the question of secondness here is: what kind of life is produced in such deafness? But another question also arises: what latent possibilities does that silence hold?” (p. 15)

While policy texts on physical activity do increasingly mention ideas about mental wellbeing, they still tend to stop well short of ‘wonder’.  A more holistic definition of physical activity will move beyond “bodily movement” to appreciate lived experiences which inform physical activity.

Second, any definition of physical activity should not ignore the political and social aspects of activity that are shape the provision and structure of physical activity, from state resources for outdoor public space, to the culturally dominant expectations about what sorts of physical activity are encouraged. The political aspect of physical activity can be extended further to consider the efforts that are made to control, persuade and judge the physical activities that people partake in. There is space for depth, richness and inclusivity by redefining physical activity to account for its complexities, nuances and politics. As Silk, Andrew and Thorpe (2017) mention in their discussion of physical cultural studies, human movement can and should be considered from a variety of levels, including “the socio-cultural, discursive, processual, institutional, collective, communal, corporeal, affective and subjective” (p. 1). And so by including this depth in a new definition, there is room to expand both conversations about physical activity and policies which promote it.

So to repeat, this proposed new definition of physical activity involves people moving, acting and performing within culturally specific spaces and contexts, and influenced by a unique array of interests, emotions, ideas, instructions and relationships.

This definition involves three aspects not captured in earlier definitions:

  • An emphasis on people who move, as distinct from dis-integrated references to muscles and energy systems.
  • The inclusion of social and cultural contexts allows for the consideration of the people’s opportunities and constraints.
  • Emphasizing unique interests, emotions, ideas, instructions and relationships will allow people to account for the plethora of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which inform physical activity.

I welcome improvements on this definition! I also hope this is not the end of discussion about what physical activity is.



Australian Government Department of Health (2011). Definitions. Retrieved from

British Medical Journal (2019). Chapter 1. What is epidemiology?

Caspersen CJ, Powell KE, Christenson GM. Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep. 1985; 100:126–131

Pronger B. (2002). Body Fascism. Salvation in the Technology of Physical Fitness. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Silk, M., Andrews, D. and Thorpe, H. (eds), (2017). Routledge handbook of physical cultural studies. London: Routledge.

World Health Organisation (2018). More Active People for a Healthier World, Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030. WHO.


The Int. Society for Physical Activity and Health Conference 2018 – An unofficial review

I have not been to an ISPAH conference since Rio, 2014. I have noticed quite a few changes since then. It seems more mature now. The talks I saw involved critical reflection, and there were entire sessions dedicated to health inequalities. And it was great to see far less Coca Cola, and much more “co-creation” (see what I did there).

Given the propensity for graphs at the conference, here is another one:

Presentation1What the chart above shows with magnificent precision is that after initial calls for and hopes for change at the start of conferences, research presentations often are forced to acknowledge a lack of policy traction, barriers to implementation and modest intervention success, as well as many arguments about what best practice actually is. Along with this is often palpable frustration about the “slow progress” of policy change and the subsequent hoped-for population change. Maybe this is an essential part of all conferences, especially ones which are associated with major public health goals.

Set in the Brutalist QE2 Conference Centre in the heart of London, it is clear ISPAH is becoming physically and politically closer to decision makers around the world. While intersectoral partnerships take time to cultivate, it seems progress is being made. Professor Fiona Bull, working for the WHO on disease prevention, is a spokesperson for the movement and a connected and successful policy entrepreneur in the realm of PA promotion. And it appears there is an ever-growing legion of evangelical enthusiasts making connections with the various sectors, from state to transportation and town planning.

“Systems approaches” continued to get a lot of air time throughout the conference. Mapping systems is a logical and noble pursuit, though the limitations need to be, and were, acknowledged early in the conference.

While a small point, I would encourage no one to call the Morris et al London busmen study (1953) the “birthplace of physical activity”. Two presenters seemed to do so. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue(s), or clunky explanation, as I’m certain “physical activity” was born earlier than 1953.

Milestones in knowledge according to GoPA

Overall, ISPAH 2018 was a slick affair, which ended with challenges and optimism. The WHO target of a 15% change in global activity levels by 2030 is a lofty goal – I suspect that aiming for less would not generate the political will to mobilize resources and change minds about the seriousness of the issue.

The launch of WHO’s “Active”

I have always intuitively favoured the social benefits that come from physical activity, as opposed to the changes in disease risk. Perhaps that is just my personal bias. Upon leaving the venue, one delegate, carrying a WHO football was accosted by one of the conference centre doormen, who enthusiastically exclaimed “Throw it here”. Two strangers briefly throwing a football to each-other might not lower the risk of anything, but it shows humans crave connection with one another. ISPAH are trying to make the world a better place, and it seems they are gaining traction. Maybe I should join?

Joe P