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Physical activity measures in Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study

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Learn about Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) and its measurement of physical activity

Longitudinal study description

Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) commenced in 2009 with an initial sample of 39,802 households in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Unlike the other studies covered by this guide, which are birth cohort studies by design, UKHLS is a panel study. UKHLS expands on and incorporates the British Household Panel Survey which began in 1991 with 5,500 households. The primary objective of UKHLS is to obtain longitudinal data on domains such as health, work, education, income, family, and social life, to help inform policies and interventions. Data is collected annually and all individuals in the household are followed, also after they leave the household, and similarly any new household members get to join the study. A total of 10 annual sweeps have been completed with sweep 11 under way. One person completes the household questionnaire. Each person aged 16 or older completes the individual adult interview, including a self-completion questionnaire. Young people aged 10 to 15y are asked to respond to a paper self-completion questionnaire. Information on children under 10 is obtained from parents. A range of measures are collected from participants, including behaviours and attitudes, life events, employment, and health and wellbeing. Biomedical and objective health measures have been obtained in some sweeps. The most recent survey (wave 8) completed in 2016-2018 involved a total number of 26,083 households and 35,417 individuals.

From April 2020 to September 2021, UKHLS captured information about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals, families, and wider communities. COVID waves 1-9 were completed in April (COVID1), May (COVID2), June (COVID3), July (COVID4), September (COVID5), and November (COVID6) of 2020, and January (COVID7), March (COVID8), and September (COVID9) of 2021. Respondents mainly carried out an online survey, but some telephone interviews were carried out in 2020. A self-completion questionnaire was sent to young people aged 10-15 as part of the COVID4, COVID6, and COVID8 waves in July 2020, November 2020, and March 2021, respectively.

Physical activity overview (Children: under 10y)

Parents were asked about their child’s sedentary behaviour (hrs/day) in waves 3-12. This included time spent watching television, using the computer, gaming, or using a screen.

Physical activity overview (Young people: 10 to 15y)

Using the young person questionnaire (ages 10-15), leisure time activity was measured at waves 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, and COVID6. Waves 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and COVID6 asked the number of days in a normal week individuals played sports or other keep-fit activities. Waves 2, 4, 6 8, 9, 11 and COVID6 collected information on type of exercise participants engaged in; while waves 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 collected information on attending classes outside of school including dance and sport. Active travel was collected at waves 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11 on the main method of travel to school (walk, bike, bus/tube, car, train, other). Sedentary behaviour (hr/day) engaging in a range of activities such as television watching, pc use, and gaming was measured in waves 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, and COVID6.Domestic activity (hr/week) is included at wave 10 and 12.

Physical activity overview (Adults: 16y+)

In the mainstage questionnaire (ages 16+), leisure time was measured at waves 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, COVID1, COVID2, COVID5, and COVD7. Waves 2 and 5 collected information on frequency of specific sports in the past 12 months. Waves 7, 9, 11, 12, COVID1, COVID2, COVID5, and COVID7 asked questions, derived from the IPAQ [75], on vigorous and moderate physical activities in the last 7 days. Occupational activities were captured at waves 2, 5, and 11, asking individuals to rate how physically active their occupation is (very, fairly, not very, not at all). Method of active travel was measured at waves 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, COVID3, COVID6, COVID8, and COVID9. At waves 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 12, COVID3, COVID6, COVID8, and COVID9 participants were asked about their mode of transport to work (cycling or walking); while in waves 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, COVID3, COVID6, and COVID8 participants were asked how frequently they cycle (weekly to yearly). Domestic activities (hr/week) were measured at wave 1, and COVID waves 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7. Sedentary behaviour (hr/day), such as watching television, using the internet or social media, and gaming, was measured in waves 3, 6, 9, 11, 12, and COVID5.

UKHLS is well designed for comparability of variables across time, with typically the exact same question wording and response scale used at different waves, providing direct comparability. For example, in adulthood, specific sports frequency at waves 2 and 5 are directly comparable. Similarly, waves 7 and 8 ask about past week vigorous and moderate exercise are directly comparable. To compare across all waves of LTPA (2, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 12), specific sports from waves 2 and 5 may be categorised by intensity and compared on the weekly/ non-weekly level. However, with occupation, active travel, domestic, and sedentary behaviour, each variable should have a corresponding variable in a following wave with which direct comparisons can be undertaken.


Data access

Understanding Society data are freely accessible to bona fide researchers by applying through the UK Data Service. More information on Understanding Society is available on the Understanding Society website.


Learn about the other studies covered by this guide and their measurement of physical activity:

Explore the measures by physical activity domain and their cross-study comparability:

Further information:

This page is part of the CLOSER resource: ‘Physical activity across age and study: a guide to data in six CLOSER studies’.