How do I demonstrate the benefits of sport to health improvement?

Understanding the context

The value of sport and physical activity to local government and communities extends beyond sport for sport’s sake.

Sport can, and does, make a profound and positive impact on individuals, communities and wider society. Boosting participation in sport can generate a range of socio-economic benefits for local communities.

In this context we are talking about sport in its widest sense. We see sport as a key part of wider physical activity and will promote and fund activities such as a gentle gym session, informal running groups or led cycle rides through to more structured team activities.

There is a strong body of evidence of the health and physical fitness benefits of sport, for example the link between physical inactivity and obesity and the role of physical activity in reducing the risk of cardiovascular heart disease. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and increase mental health and well-being. Moving someone from inactivity into just doing something is where the greatest public health benefits can be gained.

"If physical activity was a drug it would be regarded as a miracle, so everyone must take it seriously." Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer

Locally it is important for you to be able to pull this evidence together so it makes sense and resonates for local partners you are seeking to influence and work with.

Facts and Figures

Only 30% of the UK population are active enough for their health.

The benefits of regular physical activity, including sport, have been clearly set out across the life course. In particular regular activity can:

  • Prevent ill health and reduce the number of people dying prematurely
  • Enhance mental health, quality of life and self-reported wellbeing
  • Delay the need for care in older adults (age 65+)
  • Reduce health inequalities and improve wider factors influencing health and wellbeing.

In the UK, the incidence of non-communicable disease which can be attributed to physical inactivity includes:

  • 10.5% of coronary heart disease cases
  • 18.7% of colon cancer cases
  • 17.9% of breast cancer cases
  • 13.0% of type 2 diabetes cases
  • 16.9% of premature all-cause mortality.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has reported on the evidence of Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Culture and Sport and (both 2014), which showed that:

  • Sport participation is associated with higher wellbeing. This increase is valued at £1,127 per person per year, or £94 per person per month
  • Sports participants are 14.1% more likely to report good health than non-participants.

The economic argument is also strong. In developed countries, physical inactivity accounts for 1.5%-3.0% of total direct healthcare costs. Sport England’s research into the economic value of sport showed that the annual value of health benefits from people taking part in sport is estimated at £11.2 billion. 

As a first step you need to understand the landscape, who you want to influence and what their priorities are. For more information see How Do the New Structures Work and How Do I Engage?

To influence the health sector it is also useful to understand the Marmot review of health inequalities, Fair Society, Healthy Lives (PDF), which identifies a number of key areas for action to reduce health inequalities.

To demonstrate the benefits of sport to health improvement, it is important to consider:

  • The priorities and objectives of your public health partners (understanding the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and Health & Wellbeing Board priorities)
  • How you can collect appropriate levels of data, including changes in physical activity status and follow-up information
  • That you understand the importance of reducing inequalities
  • Being able to show a return on investment or saving to the health system.

How can Sport England help?

We know how active people should be:

  • The Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer highlighted that moving people from inactivity to just doing more is where the greatest health benefits lie, in the report Start Active, Stay Active.

We know what works:

We have good data to help you make the case:

  • The Local Sport Profile tool includes a range of local authority-level data sets including inactivity data, costs of inactivity, obesity levels and deprivation
  • We are currently developing a health tool which will help in assessing the wider impact of sport.
  • The Economic Value of Sport - Local Model provides a snapshot of the indicative economic value of sports activities for a local authority or local enterprise partnership area through participation, non-participation and valuing the wider benefits. It can also be used to assess the economic impact of changes such as an increase or decrease in participation numbers and the effect, for example, on the number of jobs at sports facilities or cost savings to the health service
  • The British Heart Foundation National Centre has developed two key advocacy documents on Making the Case for Physical Activity.

We know what data we should be collecting:

  • Follow the Standard Evaluation Framework from the National Obesity Observatory (now part of Public Health England), which is a best practice guide on evaluating physical activity interventions.

What's the result?

Using the material from these tools together, supplemented by your own insight and evidence, you will be able to:

  • Understand what evidence you need to collect
  • Create a local picture of need and input into your Joint Strategic Needs Assessments
  • Influence directors of public health and health commissioners by demonstrating the role of sport in delivering public health priorities
  • Make a stronger case for investment into sport and physical activity for health benefits.