The value of sport to our health

Owen Hathway reflects on the findings of a recent evaluation of the social return on investment of sport

The notion of being active to benefit your physical and mental health is far from revolutionary.  Everyone knows that doing sport, be that in a competitive environment or purely for individual enjoyment, is a pursuit which supports your mental well-being and physical health. However, while it is sometimes hard to quantify just how much of an impact sport can have on health at a national level, that is what an independent report has done for Wales.


The report, commissioned by Sport Wales and undertaken by the Sport Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, undertook a detailed and extensive evaluation of the social return on investment of sport.  The findings of the report, the first of its kind in Wales, make a clear case for how sport and health can work together for the benefit of our public service.


The key health findings of the review were substantial. It identified sport contributing a £295.17m social return on investment through:

  • Reduced risk of Coronary Heart Disease and stroke in active men and women by 30% – £97.62m
  • Reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 10% – £33.32m
  • Reduced risk of breast cancer in active women by 20% – £11.01m
  • Reduced risk of colon cancer by 24% – £7.99m
  • Reduced risk of dementia by 30% – £102.13m
  • Reduced risk of clinical depression by 21% – £3.43m
  • Reduced GP visits – £16.66m
  • Reduced use of mental health services – £23.18m.


These figures were for calculations based on evidence provided for 2016/17 but are not an exhaustive list of where sport is able to support health outcomes.  They also perhaps do not reflect the true value of these outcomes.


The benefits of these interventions are not simply the significant financial and human resource savings to our frontline NHS services, although these should certainly not be underestimated.  Rather, we should recognise the very personal successes they signify. Physical activity can help support change which saves lives; which bypasses years of pain for an individual; which ensures a mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter are not plagued by mental health issues because of the worry they endure for a family member or friend in need of treatment.  Each of these financial returns represents a community of individuals with improved mental and physical health, who can instead live an active life, fulfilling their potential.


Though this social return on investment shows how important sport can be in supporting the health agenda, we must also recognise where engaging in a cross-sector approach benefits sport in the other direction.  While sport can be a significant driver in ill-health prevention and reduced demands on NHS services, it is also clear that very often it is health services and its professionals who are best placed to support participation in physical activity.  It is through GPs’ social prescribing, initiatives such as the National Exercise Referral Scheme and the roles of physiotherapist and mental health professionals, that we can reach the most inactive in society. Health supporting individuals to take their first steps into physical recreation, before the sporting sector are then able to ensure they move into a lifelong enjoyment of sport.


Important steps to take advantage of what we know about sport’s impact on health is already being initiated through the Welsh Government’s Healthy and Active Fund.  This has been borne out of the partnership working of Public Health Wales and Sport Wales and demonstrates that, at a national level, the ambitions of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act are being put into practice.  There are numerous other examples of this positive cross-sector collaboration, but there’s still scope to enhance that work to realise the Vision for Sport in Wales.


This health report is the first in a series of elements from the social return on investment work that Sport Wales will be publishing.  Through the evidence, we will be making clear the quantifiable contribution sport makes to social cohesion, criminal justice, the economy and other aspects of Welsh society.


While the opening statement of this article noted that it was not revolutionary to say being active is good for your physical and mental health, what can be radical is the way sport can impact more widely on health outcomes.  As health and sport policies, programmes and partnerships develop in collaboration, we can ensure sustained success for both.


Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Owen Hathway is the Head of Insight and Policy at Sport Wales.

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