A team of leading researchers have been commissioned by the Sport for Development Coalition and charity Mind to research how sport and exercise can address the mental health crisis brought on by Covid-19. 

The team, drawn from Edge Hill University and Loughborough University, will produce an evidence-based report and briefing papers to support future policy, commissioning approaches, spending measures and programme methodology. 

The research comes after Mind found that over half of younger people (52%) and almost half of adults (49%) felt their mental health had got worse while unable to take part in their usual sport or exercise during lockdown. Worryingly, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that one in five adults in the UK experienced some form of depression in early 2021 – more than double pre-pandemic levels.

The team’s research began with a review of findings from across the Coalition’s network of more than 180 organisations and wider community stakeholders. Today (Wednesday 26th May), they are hosting a policy round-table which brings together policy-makers, practitioners and academics, from across the health and social care sector, voluntary and community groups and the physical activity industry.

The round-table discussion will be facilitated by Mind and the Sport for Development Coalition working with the research team which is made up of Professor Andy Smith from Edge Hill University, and Dr Florence Kinnafick and Dr Eva Rogers, both from Loughborough.  

Professor Andy Smith

Professor of Sport and Physical Activity Andy Smith said: “We are delighted to have been invited to support Mind and the Sport for Development Coalition in this important work. It is clear that Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated already widening inequalities in health, and in sport and physical activity participation, and addressing these inequalities will likely become a defining feature of much future delivery across the sport, physical activity and public health sectors.

“Underpinned by a concern with addressing existing inequalities and the social determinants of health, our review will help to provide evidence-based practical solutions and policy recommendations intended to maximise the contribution that participation in sport, physical activity and sport for development programmes might make to improved mental health in the future.” 

The round-table is part of a series orchestrated over the past year by the Chiles Webster Batson Commission on Sport and Low-Income Neighbourhoods. It will specifically consider the role that community and neighbourhood sports organisations can play in improving access for young people in disadvantaged communities, who are often at greatest risk of poor health and wellbeing outcomes. 

Speaking about the importance of sport in her own life, Commission Chair and broadcaster Charlie Webster said: “I know how important it is to have that positive engagement through physical activity and sport. At the age of 11, I started running and that was my escape – for my mental health, and from family trauma. Sport helped me with my self-esteem and my identity, and helped me to realise that I could achieve something. So for me, this could be the difference in someone achieving their potential.

“Often what young people need is very little; it doesn’t have to be a facility, it can just be someone taking an interest and believing in them. These youth and community groups give the message that young people matter.”

Sport England have already published wide-ranging evidence for the role sport and physical activity can play in maintaining and improving mental wellbeing, including the alleviation of stress and the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK reports that the Royal College of Psychiatrists recognise “exercise prescription as a treatment modality for a wide range of mental health conditions”.

Dr Kinnafick, who is a member of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, commented: “There are so many community-targeted programmes which use sport for development to improve the lives of individuals that have mental health problems. Being able to pull all of that work together to show how much good it can do, in a more systematic way, is really important for our knowledge going forward and how we provide policy recommendations.

“We’re dealing with a complex policy problem for mental health, and that requires a complex policy response from across multiple sectors – sport, physical activity, public health, and beyond. If we are to mobilise that collective knowledge and resource, then we are much more likely to break down some of the key inequalities and barriers which exist to generate poor mental health and this can’t be done by working in isolation. This is a call for action to bring the sport and physical activity, and public health sectors together to address a common problem by mobilising the knowledge and resources that we have at our disposal.” 

An MSc in Sport, Physical Activity and Mental Health is available as a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course within the Department of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University.