Leisure participation and economy

By Matt Burdett, 4 November 2017

On this page, we look at the link between participation in leisure activities and the level of economic development in a country. We also investigate two detailed examples to show how participation can change over time.

Introducing the link between leisure and economic development

Before we go any further, it’s vital to recognise that ‘leisure activities’ encompasses a very wide range of activities, from watching TV to playing in sporting competitions.

Why would we expect there to be a link between participation in leisure activities, and wealth?

  • Wealthy countries generally work fewer hours than poorer countries, so they have more time to participate
  • The richer the country, the more it can afford the facilities that make it easier to participate in sports and other activities such as visiting museums and nature reserves
  • People in poorer countries are more likely to engage in physical labour for work (e.g. primary employment such as farming, or secondary employment such as manufacturing) leaving less energy for physical activities
  • Poorer countries are more likely to have high levels of temporary migration, which disrupts social networks from which participation is likely to grow

Be careful! The statements above are by necessity highly generalised. There will be many exceptions to each of them.

Participation varies within countries: US example

The graph below shows the participation in sports for different household income levels in the United States. The data (sourced from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association) identifies that households on lower incomes are less likely to participate in sport.

There is a similar link between income and TV watching, as shown on the graph below.

1 TV hours by income.png

This apparent link may exist because of a positive multiplier effect, also known as cumulative causation. The graphic below shows how an active childhood can lead to a higher income in life and the passing of the benefits to the next generation, creating a virtuous spiral of improvement. However, there are multiple factors involved in such an effect and it is not appropriate to suggest that more physical activity is the only solution to societal problems.

Does a link really exist?

There is one leisure activity which is on the rise in almost all LICs and MICs – watching TV. The graph below shows the number of hours watched in selected countries (OFCOM, 2013). As people become richer, they have more leisure time and this can be used for watching television. However, the graph also shows that this relationship isn’t linear – although the most TV is watched by the USA, Sweden’s per capita income is higher yet they watch the least TV.

1 TV hours by country GRAPH.png

Similarly, the graph below shows the household wealth for selected countries against the time devoted to leisure (OECD, 2016). There appears to be little relationship, with the United States the outlier with the highest wealth to the far right of the graph. However, the selected countries are from the OECD. Similar data is not collected in many MICs and LICs owing to the difficulty of collecting data.

1 Leisure and wealth GRAPH.png

However, the graph shows only the amount of leisure time, not the actual participation in specific leisure activities. Even so, there are reasons why an increase in income might not lead to an increased participation in leisure activities:

  • Higher income often means more food; this can lead to obesity making participation in sporting activities difficult
  • In wealthier countries, transport and entrance fees can be very high which can put off people from participating in leisure activities
  • The population is generally older in richer countries. An elderly population can be immobile and isolated by comparison to a more active youthful population that is generally found in low and middle income countries

Participation varies between countries: football example

The graphic below is from the 2014 World Football report (Repucom, 2014). The figures show what percentage of the population expresses an interest or participation in football. There is not necessarily a link between participation or interest in football, with a mixture of African, Asian and European countries topping the table.

1 Neilson GRAPH Global-interest-in-football-.png


Lee, A. 2015. 7 Charts that Show the State of Youth Sports in the US and Why it Matters. Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/7-charts-that-show-the-state-of-youth-sports-in-the-us-and-why-it-matters/ Accessed 30th October 2017

MovieGuide.org, 2017. Study: Poverty and High Rates of TV Viewing Are Linked. https://www.movieguide.org/news-articles/study-poverty-and-high-rates-of-tv-viewing-are-linked.html Accessed 30th October 2017.

OECD, 2016. http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=BLI# Accessed 30th October 2017

OFCOM, 2013. International Communications Market Report https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/38961/icmr_2013_final.pdf Accessed 30th October 2017

Repucom, 2014. World Football. http://nielsensports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Repucom_World-Football.pdf Accessed 30th October 2017.

Leisure participation and economy: Learning activities


  1. Suggest reasons why:
    1. A link might be expected between income and leisure participation. [3]
    2. There may be no link at all. [2]
  2. Explain why participation in leisure activities may vary due to income inequality within countries. [3]
  3. Do you think there is a link between income and leisure participation? Explain your reasons. [4]

Other tasks

Using the ideas from the positive multiplier effect on sports, add your own ideas into a flow diagram explaining the negative multiplier effect from a lack of participation. Give it an appropriate title such as ‘Negative cumulative causation from lack of participation in sports’. The number of steps is up to you but it should look something like this:

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

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