Sport and recreation – it's good for you!

Syann Cox, the research officer at the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the independent voice for sport and recreation, provides a teaser of just some of the facts and figures to be released by the Alliance later this year.

I’ve always really liked the 1920’s Guinness advert that boldly proclaimed that you should drink Guinness because it’s good for you. A similar adage rings true for sport and recreation – keeping active is good for you!

Picture of Syann Cox runningKnowing how good I feel after going for a run or spending a morning horse riding, I intrinsically recognise how good for me physical activity is, but as any good researcher knows gut feeling and intuition are not the foundations for a solid evidence base.

Towards the end of last year the Alliance was hearing similar comments from our members. Confident that their projects, clubs and work were helping people in a wide range of ways, national governing bodies wanted to know what solid evidence there was for the benefits of sport and recreation.

The Alliance knew of a couple of good resources for this already – the Sport England Value of Sport monitor or the DCMS-run Culture and Sport Evidence programme (CASE) for example, but we couldn’t find a user-friendly summary of exactly what information was known and what this meant for individual activities.

Realising that we couldn’t produce digestible factsheets containing eye-catching statistics and infographics without putting in some rigorous work to assess the evidence first, we decided to undertake a literature review to assess existing research studies, projects and evaluations which show the benefits of sport and recreational activities.

The work has focused on six broad themes, each with many sub sections – the idea being that we can easily identify the relevant literature for a very specific benefit, if that’s what will push someone’s buttons.

The broad themes covered are physical health, mental health, crime and antisocial behaviour, social cohesion and education and employment.

The evidence is strong where you would expect it to be; largely the areas where it is easier to demonstrate relationships – for example, the impact of sport and recreation on body weight can be shown through controlled experiments, whilst it is harder to demonstrate the impact on social capital which is more theoretical and still widely debated as a concept.

As a result, the extent of evidence differs depending on the topic being covered meaning that in many areas much more research is needed. However, there is robust evidence that regular participation in sport and recreation can increase your life expectancy, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (by around 40 per cent) diabetes and cancer, reduce the risk of dementia by around a third, help maintain a healthy body weight, treat mild depression as effectively as medication and provide meaningful safe spaces for interaction for young people at risk of offending or social exclusion.

There are some pretty surprising findings too – did you know that beingPicture of a tape measure for obesity obese doesn't only significantly increase the chance of further health complications – obese women are 13 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and obese men five times more likely– but it also equates to an 18 per cent reduction in earnings largely thought to be down to a negative association between obesity and skill level?

I was also surprised to see the extent to which the benefits of sport and recreation cut across so many areas of life. People with long term illnesses such as hypertension or diabetes have double the rate of depression in comparison to the general population and where people have two or more long term physical illnesses the chance of depression is an alarming seven times higher.

From the other perspective, in adults, depression doubles the risk of coronary heart disease and leads to a 50 per cent increase in the risk of mortality, whilst schizophrenia and bipolar disorder reduce life expectancy by an average of 16 to 25 years and increase the likelihood of obesity and diabetes. What’s more, when a patient with a long-term physical health condition also suffers mental ill health the average cost of NHS service rises by 45 per cent a year.

And that’s just the relationship between physical and mental health, let’s not forget that physical and mental health are intricately related with social exclusion – long term poverty results in poor mental and physical health which can drive homelessness and unemployment.

Conversely unemployment can also result in poor physical and mental health and social exclusion. In addition, having a parent with poor mental health is a risk factor for aggression, antisocial behaviour and delinquency, and high levels of crime erode social cohesion.

Picture of a happy girl with a life jacketA complex web of interrelated factors affecting life chance and societal wellbeing can be woven very quickly but the evidence shows sport and recreation has the potential to cut through all these areas to bring about improvements in people’s health, happiness and life chances.

Sport and recreation can help you feel good, look good, live longer, have a greater stake in society and earn more, all for an average annual adult sports club membership fee of £83? If this was available in a pint glass with a poster saying, ‘drink sport and recreation, it’s good for you’ the pumps would be dry!

The Sport and Recreaction Alliance's published fact sheets and the main literature review will be available at the end of the summer and will provide more detail on the levels of activity needed to bring about benefits, alongside plenty of facts and figures and a summary of the extent of the evidence out there.

For more information on this work in the meantime contact Syann Cox.

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