A Sporting Chance at Improving Wellbeing and Mental Health

Emma Henwood dissects the latest survey of Wales’ experience of sport and argues that it’s time to grasp the nettle to make a healthier nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic seems never-ending, and in truth, we don’t yet know how it all will turn out.

However, the world does seem to keep turning, despite it feeling frozen in time, and in Wales, we have seen a direct response to the pandemic in a minor reshuffle. Eluned Morgan, who has been a Minister for most of this Senedd term, has become the Minister for Mental Health, Wellbeing and Welsh Language.

She retains the brief for culture and sport, working together with deputy Minister Dafydd Elis-Thomas, and for us at Sport Wales, we can certainly see the link. We know from the National Survey of Wales, adults participating in sport three or more times a week are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives, happier and less anxious.

Sport isn’t the only answer but it’s a powerful support mechanism. Bringing these areas of policy together will only help in utilising the benefits of one on the other.

In the second week of October we conducted our second national survey into people’s experiences of sport and physical activity, the first being conducted in May of this year.

The headline news is that adult physical activity levels do seem to have returned to pre-pandemic levels, although the data shows that inequality gaps have widened, and this should be of concern to all policy makers as we come to grips with what the legacy of the pandemic will be on our wellbeing.

As society has opened, there has been an overall decline in the number of people who are doing no activity, and growth in some people doing more sport than before the pandemic hit. These trends, however, were less prevalent among women.

“Research shows that obesity increases the risk of death from Covid-19 by 48%.”

Women were also more likely to say that they felt it was important to exercise during the pandemic than it had been previously, that they felt guilty for not exercising and worry more about leaving the house to exercise.

We can also see that 20% of the Welsh population did not undertake the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity, on any of the seven days prior to being surveyed. 

And the most startling insight is that 31% of those not doing any activity in the last seven days are people from the lowest socio-economic background. People who are most likely to have been adversely affected by the economic impact of the pandemic. People who might potentially now be suffering anxiety about their incomes and what this winter will hold.

Sadly, there has also been a decline in the number of people who are doing activity on most days. The decline as we have returned to a semi-normal way of life has been consistent across all age groups, however, the greatest decrease can be seen in the over 55s.

Here at Sport Wales, we are keen to help Our Future Wales become one which is both strong and resilient. Within Baroness Morgan’s portfolio is the delivery of the obesity strategy, and it has been well publicised that the most adverse health effects of Covid-19 have a close link to obesity. 

Global research shows that obesity increases the risk of death from Covid-19 by 48%, admission to intensive care by 74% and increased risk of hospitalisation by 113%. Reporting over the summer found that the stigma experienced by people living with obesity may have delayed interaction with health care and may also contribute to increased risk of severe complications arising from Covid-19. 

Our most recent survey showed that the percentage of people who were encouraged to exercise by Government guidance was down to 35%, when in May it was 43%.” 

The global studies also stated that people who are living with stigma for their weight are very unlikely to access sport opportunities, as well as potentially experiencing mental health problems associated with obesity.

One of the clearest messages during the lockdown period across the UK was the message to get out of the house and ensure you took regular exercise. In Wales, the message around the importance of physical activity from the very early stages of the initial lockdown period was clear.

Our most recent survey showed that the percentage of people who were encouraged to exercise by Government guidance was down to 35%, when in May it was 43%. 

It may be that people don’t need to be reminded now that they should exercise, or even that the encouragement now comes from different sources. But it does seem that there is an opportunity here to build upon what was – apart from ‘staying at home’ –  the one key message at the height of the first lockdown. 

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And that may be where other influencers of public opinion play a significant role. As well as the Government, the respondents to our survey listed the NHS, local government and specific healthcare professionals and GPs as the key sources they trusted in relation to guidance on physical activity. It is clear that a preventative health message must be at the heart of our public services in Wales.

Evidence from the pandemic has clearly shown that a healthy weight and active lifestyle is important in increasing people’s resilience to the virus. There is an unprecedented opportunity for the benefits of exercise to capture people’s attention like never before.

Our focus must be to support people to become more active; and this needs to be a habit that will not only endure the waves of this pandemic but stand the test of time. 

A mentally, and physically, healthier Wales is possible – now must be the time to make it happen.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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