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The 'wonder drug' to improve your mental health

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week our national partnerships lead for health and inactivity reflects on the barriers faced by those affected by these kinds of conditions, and how we're working with health organisations and charities to better support everybody to enjoy the benefits of being active.

16th May 2023

by Suzie Gittus
National partnerships lead health and inactivity, Sport England

Our mental health is our most valuable asset and moving regularly is proven to help us to look after it as well as our general wellbeing, which is key to leading a happy, healthy and fulfilling life.

The benefits of physical activity are well evidenced, playing a role in both protecting us from ill-health and in managing and alleviating mental health struggles and, for this reason, physical activity is often described as a ‘wonder drug’.

However, it remains as one of the most under-utilised public health interventions.

Whilst anyone can experience a mental health challenge at any point in their life, we know some are more at risk than others, and challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis are also contributing negatively.

Being active can significantly support those with mental health conditions but the symptoms associated with mental health problems such as low mood, fatigue, lack of motivation and anxiety – the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week – make it even harder to do so.

It really can be a vicious circle that many people find difficult to break, and that’s because it’s not as easy as ‘just doing it’ or ‘telling’ someone to move more. If only!

Our mental health is our most valuable asset and moving regularly is proven to help us to look after it as well as our general wellbeing.

We don’t always consider how the various barriers towards being active can be too significant to overcome for some, and that these many need greater support to get started.

For this reason, Uniting the Movement focuses on supporting people on their journey to living a healthier and more active lifestyle by helping remove barriers and scaling up the enablers that will address these inequalities.

What we'll do

We know that mental health challenges start young – half are established by the age of 14 and three quarters by the age of 24 – and that’s why, as a foundational step into children and young people’s mental health we will be conducting an evidence review.

The aim is to establish the evidence for the role of sport and physical activity in the treatment of diagnosed mental health challenges for this segment of the population, and to identify what works and where the gaps are to inform future investment.

Through our adult funds, we will continue to explore how we can better connect sport and physical activity provision with local NHS Talking Therapy services so more people have the opportunity and support to access physical activity as a treatment.

Plus we will be exploring the impact this has on clinical outcomes and comparing against standard talking therapy.

We will also work with partners to develop a series of support resources to make it easier for mental health services to understand how to go about embedding physical activity into routine care, plus we will keep building on our existing work with Rethink Mental Illness.

There's currently a lack of studies that focus on the role of physical activity on those affected by severe mental illness, so in order to tackle this shortage of knowledge we'll explore how physical activity can play a major role in improving physical and mental health, as well as social and overall wellbeing in Tower Hamlets and North East Lancashire

Working in local health systems, these trailblazing projects will aim to improve the support to those from culturally diverse communities and deprived communities.

This will require understanding the determinants (barriers and enablers) to physical activity for people severely affected by mental illness, while specifically exploring how local systems can better support people living with severe mental illness.

But that’s not it!

Our long-term relationship with mental health charity Mind, will focus on helping community-based sport and physical activity organisations to support the mental health of people experiencing inequalities, with a focus on young people aged 11+ (especially those experiencing trauma), people from ethnic minority groups (who are both disproportionately impacted by mental health problems and inactivity) and people from the most deprived socio-economic groups.

We'll also continue to advocate to national and local policy makers the role of physical activity as a helpful population health tool and a driver for supporting the nation's mental health and wellbeing.

While we know the coming months and years won't be without their challenges, we have one simple ask of you today (and every day, actually) - when things get a little difficult or stressful, get up and move.

Keep moving while you make that cuppa.

Get yourself outdoors and take notice of nature.

Turn that Teams meeting into a walking meeting.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

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