Moving for mental health: report calls for cross-government strategy to help tackle the mental health and wellbeing emergency

A joint report from the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind has recommended initiating a new cross-Government strategy to strengthen the use of physical activity and sport to support mental health and wellbeing following the Covid-19 pandemic.

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


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By Sport for Development Coalition | 11 January 2022 | TAGS: Mental health, Leadership

A joint report from the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind has recommended initiating a new cross-Government strategy to strengthen the use of physical activity and sport to support mental health and wellbeing following the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ‘Moving for Mental Health’ report recommends the new strategy is led by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and includes better training for health professionals to prescribe movement for mental health.

Produced following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the report sets out clear evidence that developing a healthy relationship with physical activity and being involved in linked programmatic interventions and social networks is beneficial, can improve people’s mental health and wellbeing, and help tackle social isolation.

The report concludes that Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses of single-sector responses to addressing complex mental health problems and tackling growing health inequalities. It recommends physical activity and community sport be further embedded in health policy and integrated care systems while calling for an enhanced role for experts by experience and diverse communities leading in the design, implementation and evaluation of future strategy and programming.

Moving for Mental Health has been produced to help inform Government policy and realise the benefits of community-based physical activity for everyone, with a particular focus on disadvantaged and deprived communities which have been affected disproportionately by the negative impacts of the pandemic. Launched at an online meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, it is also designed to support and inspire public bodies, funders, commissioners and policy-makers as well as community-based programme providers aiming to enhance the impact of movement for mental health.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said: “The Moving for Mental Health report comes at a time when we are at a crossroads for the sport for development sector. While Mind’s research suggests that half of adults and young people have relied on physical activity to cope during the pandemic, we also know that physical activity levels for people with long-term health conditions, including mental health problems, have declined. Considering how vital physical activity is for many people’s mental health, it is clear that we need a collective effort to reach those who need support the most.

“We know that through working collaboratively we can use our resources and expertise to be the difference for thousands of people’s lives. The sport sector, alongside the sport for development sector, has an army of over three million coaches who can help to transform lives through the power of physical activity. Add to that the expertise of the voluntary and community sectors and we are in a strong position to support more people lead healthier and happier lives in settings where they can thrive.”

Andy Reed, Chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, commented: “The Coalition and its partners are committed to working across Government to level up the societal and health inequalities which have been deepened by Covid-19, and building back fairer. This report is aimed at supporting and informing policy-makers about how we can maximise the contribution of targeted sport and physical activity-based interventions at this crucial time.”

The research was led by an expert team made up of academic researchers from Edge Hill University and Loughborough University, and draws on evidence and submissions from over 70 organisations including sport and mental health organisations, public bodies and Government departments.

Andy Smith, Professor of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, said: “The impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. It has brought to light the significant mental health inequalities which existed prior to Covid-19, but which have since worsened further, especially among those living in under-served and low-income communities. Our research is calling on the Government and other public bodies to invest in the provision of movement opportunities for mental health across multiple policy sectors, and to use the evidence presented as a basis for making more effective policy decisions which benefit everyone’s mental health and which tackle deep-seated inequalities.”

Dr Florence Kinnafick, Senior Lecturer in Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University, added: “Our work proposes how, as a collective across multiple sectors, and via standardised training and professional development, we can better support mental health through movement – and indeed better understand the role of movement for mental health. Central to our recommendations is the importance of engaging experts by experience and key community stakeholders in the design, implementation and evaluation of movement for health policy and programming. The aim of this policy brief is to build on the progress in the field of sport, physical activity, sport for development and mental health to address the current mental health and wellbeing emergency exacerbated by Covid-19.”

Moving for Mental Health is the first policy report in a series being published throughout 2022 by the Coalition and relevant partners. The reports are aimed at maximising the contribution of targeted sport-based interventions to helping ‘level up’ communities facing disadvantage and deprivation, and tackling deep-seated health and societal inequalities which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Targeted interventions across the Coalition’s UK-wide network produce cost savings and multiple returns on investment, from sustaining mental health and wellbeing and increasing employability and skills, to reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. The Coalition is a growing network of more than 200 VCSE (voluntary, community and social enterprise) groups, networks and sports bodies over-arching thousands of projects and programmes intentionally using sport to generate positive social outcomes across the UK.

Read the policy brief and research report here.

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