Government must recognise physical activity can help solve mental health crisis

Emma Boggis, CEO of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, calls on the sector to help convince Government that physical activity can play a bigger role in tackling the nation's mental health crisis. 

Studies show that people who exercise regularly have improved self-esteem and reduced stress and anxiety. And NICE guidelines have, since 2009, recognised the contribution that physical activity, particularly in a group setting, can make to managing mild to moderate depression. We know there are numerous examples of great work sport and recreation organisations are doing to support mental wellbeing. But we need to do more to persuade Government to act because at the start of 2017, the Government’s plan to improve our mental health system notably lacked any mention of the role sport and physical activity can play.

The message to Government is not that this is just good for individuals – it is good for the economy too because the economic and social cost of mental health is estimated at £105 billion a year in England alone, roughly the cost of the entire NHS. With 11.3m people inactive, this annual bill is only likely to grow if the Government fails to spend on physical activity now, to save millions in mental health bills later.

But at the same time we must, as a sector, provide decision makers with compelling evidence that a relatively small investment now can save significantly more in the longer term.

What’s happening at the grassroots?

Numerous programmes are being delivered by sport and recreation organisations to help people realise the relationship between physical activity and positive mental wellbeing. #runandtalk is England Athletics’ volunteer led scheme which encourages people who are experiencing mental health problems to start running, get back into running or continue running. It also works to improve and maintain the mental wellbeing of existing members by inviting people to be open and talk about how they are feeling.

Sport and physical activity also plays a role in providing a safe space to talk about mental health. I’m proud of the commitment from signatories of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation to tackle discrimination on the grounds of mental health and make sure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

It is crucial that we take positive action and by sharing best practice, it will help us to truly make a difference to local communities, participants and high performing athletes. It will also help us demonstrate to Government the power of sport and recreation.

The Government’s role

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson recommended in the Duty of Care in Sport Review that the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation is supported by Government so that it can continue to support the sector with practical action. I would urge Government to implement this recommendation to allow the sector to reach more people and demonstrate its ability to play a lead role in tackling the mental health crisis we face.

Work together

I know about the physical benefits of being active as I have a keen interest in running and cycling to help keep me fit and healthy – and being active also provides me with much needed time and head space for some mental clarity.

World Mental Health Day gives us a platform to promote the work of the signatories of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation and encourage others to explore the role they can play in continuing to break down the stigma associated with mental ill health. It is too important for individuals, society and our economy not to.