Evidence Review: Outcomes associated with sport and physical activity

A summary of the breadth of evidence available of the benefits of physical activity and sport to physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development and economic development.

Overhead view of a group dance exercise class in a community centre

Benefits of physical activity

Now more than ever it’s important that the benefits of sport and physical activity to individuals and society are recognised; particularly so that everyone can enjoy them. Physical activity can help us feel happier and healthier, more socially connected, improve educational attainment and can contribute to national and local economies.

We have summarised the evidence using the measures of success outlined by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in their Strategy ‘Towards an Active Nation’: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development and economic development.

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Physical health

The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. ‘If medication existed which has a similar effect, it would be regarded as a wonder drug or miracle cure’ Chief Medical Officers Report. Increased physical activity has been found to:

  • Reduce risk of some cancers: lowering the risk of endometrial and colon cancer by 30%, and breast cancer by at least 12%, and significantly reducing the likelihood of colon, breast and prostate cancer from recurring.
  • Prevent type 2 diabetes: the more exercise you do, the greater the effect. For those reaching the recommended 150 minutes a week, the risk of diabetes is reduced by a quarter (compared to inactive people). But for those doing double this amount the reduction is 36%, and for those doing the equivalent of two hours a day, the risk falls by over half (53%).
  • Lower risk of developing dementia: at least an 18% reduction, according to one systematic review
  • Better quality of life: extending healthy life expectancy and reducing the risk of falls, and being active also enables older people to continue to go out and meet friends and family, staving off social isolation and loneliness.
  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD): a 25–30% reduction in stroke among active individuals, and people who are inactive may be at as much as twice the risk of coronary heart disease.

Mental health

Physical activity was found to improved mental wellbeing (particularly in green space): protecting against depression and with an effect on existing mild to moderate depression that is comparable to many drugs, and reducing cognitive decline.

UK mental health charity MIND ran a small study of ‘green exercise’ (physical activity outdoors), questioning people involved in walking, gardening, conservation and cycling. 90% of those surveyed said that they feel that green exercise benefits their physical health – but an even higher proportion, 94%, felt that it improved their mental health.

Many studies and clinical trials have shown specific benefits including: improved mood, reducing symptoms of stress, anger, depression and job burnout, alleviating anxiety and slowing cognitive decline. It has been suggested that physical activity may have effects on treating depression comparable to Prozac or behavioural therapy.


Physical activity helps to build stronger communities by bringing people together, often from different backgrounds, to make them feel better about where they live, improve community links and cohesion, and build social capital.

Participating in sports and exercise offers opportunities for social interaction and for widening and strengthening social networks.

Physical activity can help reduce social isolation and build a sense of community and belonging.


Evidence to support the role physical activity can play in improving educational behaviour and attainment is strong.

Research shows that individual development can be improved through sport and physical activity in terms of improved educational behaviour and attainment, better employment prospects, greater self-efficacy, and tackling the problems of those not in education, employment or training.

Physical activity has been shown to directly improve grades and school attainment, including for those that are difficult to engage. Indirectly improving educational attainment; physical activity improves memory, team-working and concentration.


Sport adds considerable economic value to the UK economy, contributing significantly in terms of spending, economic activity (measured using Gross Value Added) and employment.

There is national economic benefit from improved health: a more productive workforce, and reduced costs to the National Health Service (NHS). For instance, it is reported that the cost of obesity in England (in 2007) lies around £4.2 billion to the NHS for treating obesity; and indirect costs for the wider economy around £15.8 billion.

Published October 2020