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Leading research team supports mission to enhance sport's contribution to mental health and wellbeing

A team of leading researchers have been commissioned to support the joint mission of the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind to enhance the contribution that sport and physical activity can make to addressing the mental health and wellbeing crisis brought on by Covid-19. 

The team, drawn from Loughborough University and Edge Hill University, will work with the Coalition and Mind to produce an evidence-based report and briefing papers to support future policy, commissioning approaches, spending measures and programme methodology. The team has been tasked with reviewing empirical peer-reviewed research published since the onset of the pandemic along with learning, evidence and case studies submitted following a call for submissions from across the Coalition’s network of more than 180 organisations and wider community stakeholders. The team will also draw on inputs provided during an online forum in March, and from an upcoming policy round-table being convened on Wednesday 26th May which will bring together policy-makers, practitioners and academics, from across the health and social care, and voluntary and community sectors – as well as the sport and physical activity industry.


The round-table will be facilitated by Mind and the Sport for Development Coalition working with the research team which is made up of Professor Andy Smith (Edge Hill), Dr Florence Kinnafick and Dr Eva Rogers (Loughborough).  

This work is especially urgent given the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health. Mind’s own research on the impact of the first lockdown found that over half of younger people (52%) and almost half of adults (49%) felt their mental health had got worse due to not being able to play sport or exercise. Worryingly, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that one in five adults in the UK experienced some form of depression in early 2021 – more than double the level recorded before the pandemic.

Mind - Covid-19 impact

There is wide-ranging evidence for the role sport and physical activity can play in maintaining and improving mental wellbeing, including the alleviation of stress or PTSD, a selection of which is available in this review published by Sport England. Meanwhile the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK reports that the Royal College of Psychiatrists recognise “exercise prescription as a treatment modality for a wide range of mental health conditions”. Nonetheless it warns there is still “a stigma that surrounds people suffering with mental health conditions, which can act as a barrier to physical activity and participation in sport”.  

The briefing and policy recommendations produced through this process will specifically focus on addressing the inequitable impact of the pandemic across different communities and groups with a particular focus on differences based on age, ethnicity, disability, geography and economic status.


Professor Smith said: “We are delighted to have been invited to support Mind and the Sport for Development Coalition in this important work. It is clear that Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated already widening inequalities in health, and in sport and physical activity participation, and addressing these inequalities will likely become a defining feature of much future delivery across the sport, physical activity and public health sectors. Underpinned by a concern with addressing existing inequalities and the social determinants of health, our review will help to provide evidence-based practical solutions and policy recommendations intended to maximise the contribution that participation in sport, physical activity and sport for development programmes might make to improved mental health in the future.” 

Dr Kinnafick, who is a member of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, commented: “There are so many community-targeted programmes which use sport for development to improve the lives of individuals that have mental health problems. Being able to pull all of that work together to show how much good it can do, in a more systematic way, is really important for our knowledge going forward and how we provide policy recommendations.

“We’re dealing with a complex policy problem for mental health, and that requires a complex policy response from across multiple sectors – sport, physical activity, public health, and beyond. If we are to mobilise that collective knowledge and resource, then we are much more likely to break down some of the key inequalities and barriers which exist to generate poor mental health and this can’t be done by working in isolation. This is a call for action to bring the sport and physical activity, and public health sectors together to address a common problem by mobilising the knowledge and resources that we have at our disposal.” 

The recommendations produced at the round-table facilitated by Mind and the Coalition, which is focused on mental health across the life course and will involve organisations working at national and regional level across the health, sport and community development ‘systems’, will be enhanced by a further event that the Coalition will participate in on Friday 28th May focused on how sport and physical activity can contribute to maintaining health and wellbeing in young people in low-income neighbourhoods.


This round-table is part of a series orchestrated over the past year by the Chiles Webster Batson Commission on Sport and Low-Income Neighbourhoods. It will specifically consider the role that community and neighbourhood sports organisations can play in improving access for young people in disadvantaged communities, who are often at greatest risk of poor health and wellbeing outcomes. 

Speaking about the importance of sport in her own life, Commission Chair and broadcaster Charlie Webster said: “I know how important it is to have that positive engagement through physical activity and sport. At the age of 11, I started running and that was my escape – for my mental health, and from family trauma. Sport helped me with my self-esteem and my identity, and helped me to realise that I could achieve something. So for me, this could be the difference in someone achieving their potential.

“Often what young people need is very little; it doesn’t have to be a facility, it can just be someone taking an interest and believing in them. These youth and community groups give the message that young people matter.” 


  • Professor Andy Smith is Professor of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, UK. His research focuses on mental health, mental illness and suicide prevention in community and professional sport. Andy contributed to the Government’s independent Duty of Care in Sport review, works with a range of sports organisations including Everton in the Community (the official charity of Everton Football Club) and Rugby League Cares, and led the UK’s first research project into mental health in the sport and physical activity workforce. 
  • Dr Florence Kinnafick is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, Senior Lecturer in Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences and a member of the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine. Florence has been working with Mind for seven years leading the evaluation of its Get Set to Go and Sector Support programmes and has contributed to previous expert statements including the European Psychiatry Association guidance on physical activity as a treatment for severe mental illness, and The British Association of Sport and Exercise Science expert statement on mental health literacy in elite sport. 
  • Dr Eva Rogers is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society and is currently working as a University Teacher in psychology at Loughborough University, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences. Over the last year, Eva has also worked with Florence Kinnafick as a research assistant on the evaluation of Mind’s Sector Support Programme.