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A healthy mind in a healthy body

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, our national partnerships lead for health and wellbeing introduces our latest report on the link between physical activity and mental wellbeing.

15th May 2024

by Suzie Gittus
National partnerships lead for health and wellbeing

It was very clear for people in ancient Rome – there’s a direct link between our mental and our physical health or as they said: "Mens sana in corpore sano."

Fast forward a few centuries and in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, today we’re releasing a special new report – 'Understanding the impact of movement on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing’ – which deep-dives into the connection between being and feeling well.

Because after years working in our sector, this week’s recognition is a real cause for celebration; a true appreciation of the decades of growing and building the evidence-base for the role that sport and physical activity can play in supporting our mental wellness.

Report headlines from our Active Lives Adult Survey

The release of our latest Active Lives report shows a mixed picture of the relation between physical and mental strength.

On the one hand we continue to see a positive association between activity levels and mental wellbeing indicators – a well-established survey trend since the 2016-17 survey.  

More activity (150 minutes of moderate intensity per week) correlates with higher mental wellbeing and conversely lower levels of anxiety.

Today we’re releasing a special new report – 'Understanding the impact of movement on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing' – which deep dives into being and feeling well

But on the other hand, the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had a long-lasting impact on the nation's mental wellbeing and there has been a general drop in average scores across all indicators of mental wellbeing.

These have yet to recover to baseline levels from 2016-17 and in particular for two of these markers ('happiness' and 'life worthwhileness'), the decrease in wellbeing is almost twice as great for the inactive versus the active.

Our data also shows that poor mental wellbeing disproportionately affects individuals who are physically inactive – younger adults (aged 16-34), women, individuals with non-binary or self-described gender identities, people with disabilities or long-term health conditions, specific ethnicities, people living in areas of greater deprivation and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Delving deeper into the attitudes towards sport and physical activity to support our mental health, 25% of adults strongly agree and 44% agree that it is important to exercise for their mental health.

But while this is promising, 11% do not take up sport and physical activity in supporting their mental wellbeing.

There is moderate recognition of the benefits that moving more has on sleep, mood and the prevention and management of long-term health conditions.

But less so of the importance of movement in helping people worry less and its value in supporting people to be social.

This attitudinal insight suggests there’s still work to be done in public messaging to improve the awareness and knowledge of the role movement as a tool to support mental wellness.

Children and young people's trends

In the latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, just like in the adult's one, findings too reveal a positive association between levels of engagement in sport and physical activity and mental wellbeing.

In short children who are active also feel happier and more resilient.

However, the latest data shows an overall long-term decline in average mental wellbeing scores for secondary school children compared to the 2017-18 survey.

This trend was driven by the lower-age secondary children (Years 7-8), while upper-age secondary children (Years 9-11) showed recovery to their baseline levels in the last 12 months.

The State of the Youth Nation survey further delved into attitudes for approximately 1,000 children and young people aged 16-24.

The study reported that 62% of young people overall agreed that physical activity is important to them in supporting their mental health and wellbeing – an opinion that’s more popular among young women than young men.

So, if we support children and young people to have a meaningful relationship with movement and physical activity, this will positively contribute to their mental wellbeing later on in their lives.

Working together for better results 

The evidence is there, so what could help us get to a place in the future where more people recognise the value of movement for their mental and physical wellness?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet here.

But I do think some of the answers lie in raising awareness and increasing the profile of movement as a tool that can support self-nourishment and care within public health messaging.

This should be accompanied by a joined effort that goes beyond our sector, so together we fly the flag for the role of movement in supporting mental health.

But what else could we do?

I think there are a series of important actions that we can do to strengthen that trust and collaborative working among sectors. These include:

  • moving forward as one, strengthening and better connecting with the health system both around the prevention and management of health conditions and diseases
  • getting tighter on return on investment, as well as being clearer on how to do this at scale and with ease
  • further understanding the barriers for those who are most inactive and at risk of mental health challenges, plus learning more about what supports these groups' needs
  • exploring the policy blockers that prevent many from leading an active lifestyle and advocating as a greater voice for key enablers locally and nationally.

Today, I started with a reference to the Romans but we don’t need to go back so far in time to prove that they were right, as we have plenty of modern evidence that proves the role between moving more and feeling better.

Now let's work together so the message gets clearer and everyone can reap the benefits that an active lifestyle can bring.

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