Moving for Mental Health: How can government funding into physical activity improve mental health?

Last month, The Sport for Development Coalition and Mind released the Moving for Mental Health report, detailing the impact that Covid-19 has had on activity levels and mental wellbeing throughout the UK. The report sets out to inform government policy approaches to mental health and community-based physical activity, sport, and sport-for-development and support the work of those providing and funding community-based programmes promoting movement for mental health.

At Oaks, we work alongside organisations using sport as a tool for societal change, by helping them to explore their fundraising potential. We’ve surveyed the sector twice over the last two years to better understand the impact of Covid-19 on the fundraising performance and approaches of sport for development organisations across the globe.

A commonly occurring theme among those organisations we’ve spoken to is the need to increase governmental investment into sport for development to help alleviate the financial pressure caused by the pandemic on traditional income streams; 68% of European organisations are reliant on grants from trusts, foundations and institutions as their primary source of income, and 22% of respondents mentioned diversifying their income streams as a fundamental action needed to raise more money for their cause. In this context, the Moving for Mental Health report is a valuable contribution to the emerging research base that proves the social benefits of participating in organised physical activity, alongside advocating for an increase in government funding for programmes of this nature.

We’ve encountered numerous great examples of sport for development programmes that promote movement for mental health, including Head 4 Health – a project that aims to improve mental and physical wellbeing in adult males, Howstha – a campaign by Yorkshire Cricket Foundation centred around a series of online mental health courses targeted at individuals wishing to develop their knowledge in counselling, suicide awareness and awareness of mental health problems, and The Bally's Foundation – an independent charity organisation funded by Bally’s Corporation, with the aim of preserving and protecting the wellbeing of individuals suffering from mental health issues.

There are also many other community sport programmes that, while not specifically targeted towards mental health, contribute towards increasing physical activity and supporting disadvantaged communities. However, this report also confirmed that the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis and accelerated and deepened existing health inequalities. It states that because Covid-19 occurred against a backdrop of pre-existing socio-economic inequalities in mental health, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities have been disproportionately impacted. This is consistent with earlier research by Sport England, which reported that the impact of the pandemic on activity levels have been felt unequally, with women, Black and Asian ethnic groups and those in routine/semi-routine jobs or long-term unemployment particularly affected by Covid-19 and associated restrictions.

As a result, the Moving for Mental Health report sets out several recommendations for policy makers including:

· An expansion of government funding into sport for development and the development of a cross-government strategy promoting movement for mental health

· Prioritisation of cross-sector partnerships and the inclusion of experts by experience and diverse community stakeholders in the design and implementation of movement for mental health policy and programming

· Professionals and volunteers promoting movement for mental health to receive more standardised training and professional development

· Commissioners, funders, project implementers and research partners to collectively prioritise and fund more consistent and accessible evaluations to identify different impacts and outcomes

This latter point is something we’d strongly support: although more sport for development organisations met or exceeded their fundraising targets in 2021 than in 2020, 41% of organisations still failed to meet their targets last year. Given that sport for development organisations themselves have identified increasing governmental support as key to the future of the sector, is now the time to review the funding approach for this sector? The comprehensive evidence contained within the Moving for Mental Health report is a valuable contribution to the conversation regarding community sport’s place in the pandemic recovery. It points to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain socio-economic groups and the positive relationship between participation in sport and mental health, suggesting that more can be done in terms of levelling the playing field in mental health service provision. Through advocating for increased government investment into physical activity in Primary Care, Secondary Care and Community Open Programmes, this provides an initial blueprint for how a government-funded cross-sector approach could look.

After an incredibly challenging two years for community sport, physical activity, and sport for development organisations, the Moving for Mental Health report is an important piece of research which should help to inform the future direction of the sector. We are delighted to see the valuable work of those organisations using sport as a tool for social good receive wider public attention and would fully support an expansion of government funding into the promotion of movement for mental health.

If you’d like to have a conversation about your organisation’s fundraising strategy, please do get in touch with us at – we’d love to hear from you.

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