Image Description: Personal Training at Gym – Press Ups
On the 25th March it will be exactly six years since the Government launched the Mental Health in Sport Initiative. This moment was critical for so many reasons, but most importantly it represented the first-time 20+ sporting organisations, ranging from the Rugby Football Union to the British Athletes Commission and British Swimming, had signed a charter confirming they would work to promote the correlation between sport and positive mental health. The commitments of the charter were as follows:
- To use the power of sport to promote and encourage wellbeing
- Publicly promote and adopt good mental health policies both on and off ‘the pitch’
- Actively tackle discrimination on the grounds of mental health in sport
- Use diverse role models and ambassadors to help reduce the stigma attached to mental health problems
- To continue to monitor and assess progress in order to take continued action against mental health.
I have a personal connection with the launch of the charter, in that my karate club – Chelmsford Shotokan Karate Club – was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the event at the Kia Oval. In truth, the euphoria of actually being on the television has made the memory of the day very hazy, but I do remember playing cricket with then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (although he made us run for him so that he did not look to sweaty on camera). However, when I was recently asked by MIND, the country’s leading charity in support of mental health, to reflect on my experiences at the charter I began to consider just how much things have changed for the better in terms of the links between exercise and mental health.
I thought the launch would just be a fun day out, and I could not have foreseen its future impact. A connection between mental health and sport was just not on everyone’s minds in the way that it is now. When we have held events celebrating Mental Health Day at karate I have been blown away by how many children under 10 know the word ‘endorphins’…I certainly did not I was their age! It is thanks to the steadfast work of charities such as MIND or the Sport and Recreation Alliance that we, as a society, are beginning to accept that mental health conditions are just as valid and important as their physical counterparts. The influence of the Charter was monumental in this respect, because, by physically including them in government legislation these connections were made real.
The Charter was accompanied by an important study from the Sport and Recreation Alliance called ‘The Game of Life’. To use the words of Emma Boggis, then-CEO of the Alliance, the study brought together ‘all of the best evidence to support those gut feelings we had about sport’. Among the more influential ‘proofs’ was the confirmation that exercise is a viable way of treating or at least coping with both moderate depression and anxiety. For a long time after the study this statement was just taken as a nice statistic. It was just something that further consolidated the positive connection between all aspects of sport and mental wellbeing. However, this year it certainly became increasingly relevant.
At the end of last year the ‘Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic’ study was published. It confirmed by statistics that at least 62% of the UK population have experienced heightened anxiety or stress as a result of the pandemic. Out of this study emerged the concern about where this leaves sports. One of the biggest losses of the pandemic has been the closing of gyms, clubs, and any sport organisation below ‘elite’ level. I do not think there is a single sporting organisation in the UK that has not been affected. Recently the medical director of Nuffield Health, Dr Davina Deniszczyc, released a report designed to present a renewed perspective on the role gyms have, or could have played, during the pandemic. Her study is of particular relevance to young people. She demonstrated that over the pandemic at least 55% of people aged 18-24 feel their mental health has worsened, a statistic she argues is partially a consequence of the fact that 50% of young people are not able to get in at least two hours of exercise a week. There is a certain correlation between the closure of gyms and indoor sporting club and this fall in exercise frequency. This survey was conducted in the winter and the relentless British rain can definitely kill motivation to exercise outside.
It is important, however, to consider that Dr Deniszczyc is not in any way promoting the reopening of gyms in defiance of government guidelines; she merely states her ‘serious concern’ on the long term impacts this closure will have on people’s physical and mental health when the pandemic is over. I am also not engaging in such advocation because there are statistics and arguments to support both views. It has been argued that gyms are more of a danger zone because people get sweaty when exercising heavily which could be a real concern with an airborne virus. However, it has also been shown that out of all the cases reported through NHS track and trace only 2.8% come from gyms, which is less than a third of the cases reported from pubs and bars. What I will say instead is that we should continue to remember that there is a genuine, scientifically proven link between exercise and mental health, and that this link will not disappear under coronavirus’ shadow.
I am proud to be able to look back on these six years and see just how much has changed surrounding the stigmatisation of mental health, particularly in the context of sport. Last summer over 150,000 people signed a petition to change gyms to an ‘essential service’ which just shows how linking sport, exercise, and positive mental wellbeing is now something utterly that is manifest. We obviously still have work to do, and nothing is ever perfect or complete…but what a way we have come!