Category Archives: Carers

Examining physical activity and informal carers

By Jo Horne

I recently published an article in collaboration with Open University colleagues, including Dr Nichola Kentzer also from the Sport and Fitness team, and two Anglia Ruskin University academics. The article, in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, is a systematic review of the prevalence of physical activity, and barriers and facilitators to physical activity, in informal carers in the UK. Examining existing UK based research, we sought to answer:

What are the barriers that limit or prevent carers engaging in physical activity, and what factors might facilitate their engagement?

Why is this an important area to study?

Informal carers provide unpaid care, usually to family members. There were estimated to be 8.8 million informal carers in the UK in 2019, which equates to 17% of the adult population (Carers UK, 2019). The majority of informal carers report that they are not able to engage in as much physical activity as they would like.

Research has shown that caring negatively impacts on the physical health (including sleep disturbance, fatigue, pain, loss of strength, loss of appetite and weight loss) and mental health (including anxiety, depression and stress) of informal carers (Girgis et al., 2013; Stenberg et al., 2010; Loi et al., 2015; Loi et al., 2016). Importantly, physical activity is shown to be beneficial to both of these aspects of health (Reiner et al., 2013; Warburton et al., 2006).

So, it’s important that we understand what barriers informal carers face in engaging with physical activity and what factors facilitate them to do so. This is particularly important at the current time, as the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions are likely to have not only increased the number of individuals providing informal care, but also reduced the formal and informal support systems available to such carers, which further impacts on access to physical activity.

What did the systematic review find?

We found no UK research reporting the prevalence of physical activity of informal carers in the UK, and only three studies reporting on barriers and facilitators (Forbes et al., 2007; Malthouse & Fox, 2014; Farina et al., 2020). The studies tended to focus primarily on the health / physical activity status of the individuals being cared for, with the carers of those individuals being a secondary focus. Their findings are summarised here:

What are the next steps?

Due to the very limited amount of research in this area in the UK, we are now undertaking two international reviews: one on the prevalence of physical activity in informal carers; and the other on their barriers and facilitators to physical activity. The search process did reveal a much higher level of research internationally, particularly in the US, Canada, and Australia. We can examine this in order to learn and apply to the UK carer population. In addition, we are carrying out a pilot study looking at the effectiveness of online dance classes in increasing levels of activity in informal carers, and improving their physical and mental health.

It is expected that the combined findings from these studies will enable us to develop further resources for enabling informal carers to engage with physical activity in ways that are effective in improving their physical and mental health.


Horne, Joanna, Kentzer, Nichola, Smith, Lee, Trott, Mike, & Vseteckova, Jitka. (2021). A Systematic Review on the Prevalence of Physical Activity, and Barriers and Facilitators to Physical Activity, in Informal Carers in the United Kingdom. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. Advance online publication.

Read more:

We have a series of Open Learn articles which explore the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on the physical activity of informal carers.

Jo Horne is an Associate Lecturer on the OU S&F module E235. She is also a Staff Tutor in Psychology in the OU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. You can find out more about her here.