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Cycling still on rise - but swimming's dive continues, says Sport England

Latest Active People Survey finds cycling and athletics only major sports to grow weekly participation

New figures show that 66,000 more people aged 16-plus in England are riding a bike at least once a week in October 2014 than a year earlier. The data comes from Sport England’s Active People Survey, which also found that the country’s top participation sport, swimming, saw a decrease in the number of adults taking part, while second-ranked athletics experienced a rise in participants.

Indeed, athletics and cycling were alone in the top dozen funded sports to have recorded statistically significant growth in participation since the first Active People Survey in 2005/06. Since then, no change has been recorded for rugby union, but sports including football, golf, badminton, tennis and cricket have all seen numbers fall.

The survey defines once a week participation as taking part in at least 30 minutes of sport at moderate intensity on four days or more in the previous 28 days. Cycling includes recreational and competitive cycling, but excludes cycling for travel purposes only.

Given that a number of bike commuters do so not just to get to work but also to keep fit and perhaps instead of going to the gym in some instances, that doesn’t necessarily mean all cycle commuting is excluded.

According to the Active People Survey, some 2.069 million people aged 16+ in England cycle once a week, up from 2.003 million in 2012/13. As a percentage of the population, the figures are 4.75 per cent in the latest survey, against 4.62 per cent in the previous edition.

British Cycling chief executive Ian Drake said: “The appetite we’re seeing for cycling in this country is at an all-time high. Over two years on from London 2012, and with a fantastic Tour de France behind us, we are still seeing a steady increase in the number of people getting on bikes. And we’re not talking about getting the bike out of the shed once a year, these results are about inspiring people to ride week-in, week-out – whatever the weather.

“Our focus is now on the sustainable growth of the sport and we’ve forged a wealth of new partnerships in the last year with transport authorities like Transport for London as well as councils and the private sector.

He added: “The backing we continue to enjoy from our members, clubs, volunteers, our principal partner Sky, Sport England and Local Authority partners has been paramount to our ability to provide a supportive environment for all cyclists, however they want to ride.”

Swimming still remains the most popular form of exercise by some way among people aged 16+, with 2.689 million people – 6.16 per cent of the adult population – taking part in it once a week. However, that’s down from 2.934 million participants, representing 6.77 per cent of 16-year-olds and above in England.

Second-placed athletics, which comprises everything from track & field events to simply jogging, saw the number of participants grow from 2.016 million to 2.162 million people, reflecting a rise in participation rate of 4.65 to 4.96 per cent.

Given the numbers involved, the decline in swimming dragged down overall weekly participation in sport as a whole among people aged 16 or above, with Sport England chief executive Jennie Price expressing concerns about the sport.

She said: “I am disappointed with these figures, and I’m very concerned about the drop in swimming, which dominates the overall picture.

“If swimming’s figures had been flat, we’d be looking at an overall increase in participation. I am encouraged by the fact that the current leadership at the ASA, and the wider swimming industry, now recognise there’s an issue and want to work together to fix it. It needs to get on with it.

"Swimming has lagged behind running and the gym in terms of offering an attractive, modern experience to people who want to play sport and exercise. That has to change and to change quickly.”

Like cycling, swimming holds stronger appeal among people aged 26 and above than it does among those aged 16-25; for the older group, the two activities are ranked first and second respectively, but only third and fourth among the younger cohort for whom football followed by athletics hold stronger appeal.

The 2013/14 edition is the eighth annual Active People Survey, with 164,097 respondents aged 16+ involved in the latest wave. Sport England uses the results as part of its measurement of the performance of national governing bodies, most of which have a target for 2013-17 based on once a week participation.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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