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Emerging Trends in Sport Participation

Mental and social wellbeing

Sport, and in particular, organised sport, is an important part of many Australians' lives. It has benefits, not only for physical health and fitness, but also provides valuable social opportunities like being part of a team, meeting up with friends, and having fun. These social aspects can also play a big part in helping participants, whether they are playing or volunteering, to manage their mental and social wellbeing.

Sport - particularly team-based sport - can have a positive impact on outcomes including:

  • improving resilience
  • enhancing psychological and social development (interpersonal skills, personal resilience, confidence and self-esteem)
  • improving mental health outcomes across the life course
  • social connectedness

More detailed information and research on the benefits of sport are included in the Physical Activity topic.

Impact of COVID-19

The pandemic has impacted the mental and social wellbeing of many Australians, with numerous publications linking a decline in mental health to declining levels of physical activity and increased sedentary behaviour. A 2021 online survey of Canadian adults (18+) sought to understand why and how physical activity and sedentary behaviour had changed because of the pandemic, and how those changes impacted mental health.

The survey reported:

  • Respondents were Less physically active (aerobic activity, -11%; strength-based activity, -30%) and more sedentary (+11%) during the pandemic as compared to 6-months before.
  • Respondents had increased psychological stress (+22%) and brought on moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Respondents' whose mental health deteriorated the most were also the ones who were least active;
  • The majority of respondents were unmotivated to exercise because they were too anxious (+8%,), lacked social support (+6%), or had limited access to equipment (+23%) or space (+41%).
  • Respondents who were able to stay active reported feeling less motivated by physical health outcomes such as weight loss (-7%) or strength (-14%) and instead more motivated by mental health outcomes such as anxiety relief (+14%).

This study again demonstrates the well established direct link between mental health and physical activity and the value in remaining active during periods of high stress.

A recent study, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, stated this link is being further exposed during the pandemic. It suggested, during the initial stage of the pandemic, people who were less physically active had worse mental health.

In June 2021, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported 20% of Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in the last four weeks, similar to March 2021 (20%) and November 2020 (21%).

Further, almost 30% of younger Australians (aged 18 to 34 years) experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress in June 2021, compared with 18% of people aged 35 to 64 years and 10% of people aged 65 years and over.

During the first national lockdown period of April to June 2020, it was found (through Sport Australia’s Community Perceptions Monitor survey) that people who were finding it easier to keep fit and active reported feeling more optimistic and connected, with greater well-being. The segment of the population called ‘Sport Lovers’ appeared the most positive, and the ‘Not interested (in sport)’ the least positive.

The Centre for Social Impact predicted that the far-reaching economic and social impacts of COVID-19 will continue to take a toll on Australians’ mental health. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the second epidemic’ and evidence of this mental health burden is already emerging.

The implementation of social restrictions, combined with the removal of sport and other social opportunities has impacted the mental health of many Australians but the research supporting the benefits of sport participation on a positive mental outlook is clear. With an apparent ongoing impact on mental health, sport participation could play a valuable role in rebuilding mental health and reconnecting people.

Access to resources
Where possible, direct links to full-text and online resources are provided. However, where links are not available, you may be able to access documents directly by searching our licenced full-text databases (note: user access restrictions apply). Alternatively, you can ask your institutional, university, or local library for assistance—or purchase documents directly from the publisher. You may also find the information you’re seeking by searching Google Scholar.

  • Mental Health Focus for Sport and Multiculturalism, Bronnie Taylor, Minister for Mental Health, Regional Youth and Women, Natalie Ward, Minister for Sport, Multiculturalism, Seniors and Veterans, NSW Government media release, (18 October 2021). The $130 million investment over four years will fund initiatives to offer mental health resources to local sporting groups, training opportunities for community members and a multilingual mental health line. “The pandemic’s impact on people’s mental health throughout our state has been significant,” Minister for Mental Health Bronnie Taylor said. “It’s important we establish valuable touchpoints for mental health support out in the community.” Mrs Taylor joined with Minister for Sport and Multiculturalism Natalie Ward to announce a $3 million commitment over one year to the Mental Health Sporting Fund, providing tailored mental health programs to local sporting groups.
  • Survey reveals what young people need for good health, VicHealth, (29 September 2021). A new VicHealth survey reveals 2 in 3 (68%) of Victoria’s young people aged 18-25 believe they have a role to play in helping plan and create healthier local communities. The survey also highlighted what Victoria’s young people and kids need for good physical and mental wellbeing, during and after the pandemic.
    • Young people aged 18-25 key findings: For 7 in 10 (71%) young people, staying socially connected with others has become one of the most important issues during the pandemic. Almost 7 in 10 (69%) young people said having nowhere near home to do the sports or activities they enjoy has an impact on their physical activity.
    • Victoria’s parents and carers of kids aged 6-17 years key findings: 9 in 10 (90%) parents believe that social connection is important for their child’s mental wellbeing. And almost 7 in 10 (68%) parents said having a limited number of physical activity spaces (eg playgrounds, parks and bike paths) near home has an impact on their kids’ physical activity.
    • In 2020, the VicHealth Coronavirus Victorian Wellbeing Impact studies found the health and wellbeing of Victoria’s young people aged 18 to 24 years was impacted during the pandemic in the following ways: 2 in 5 (42%) found it difficult to connect with friends and family; 1 in 5 (19%) were physically inactive (did 30 minutes or more of physical activity, which was enough to raise their breathing rate, once or less per week).
  • Supporting Regional Clubs Research: Interim Report, Regional Sport Victoria, (October 2021). Responses to this survey paint a picture of the challenges faced by community club, leagues, and associations throughout regional Victoria, particularly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These survey results raise concerns in three key areas: the impact of COVID-19 on volunteers, member and volunteer participation and retention, and the demand for grants and other assistance. Some key findings relating to mental health include:
    • By far the biggest concern for organisations of any size were serious mental health concerns for individuals with over 17% of respondents citing the issue.
    • The second most requested form of assistance was the provision of mental health first aid courses or mental health awareness programs
    • Respondents suggested that accidental counsellor training could also be added to coaching courses to equip coaches appropriately to support distressed members and players.
  • The first year of COVID-19 in Australia: direct and indirect health effects, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), (10 September 2021). The report covers the first year of the pandemic, to around April/May 2021. Where possible, the most recent data available at the time of writing is included, however due to the timing of different data collections, some data are only available for periods within 2020. It does not include data on the latest wave of cases that began in June 2021. There was a mixed picture for health behaviours, with some people improving and some worsening:
    • There were ​adverse impacts on mental health for young people. The initial impacts of the pandemic in Australia appeared to have increased levels of psychological distress, particularly for adults aged 18–45. By April 2021, the average level of psychological distress had returned to pre-pandemic levels, however continued to be higher for young people.
      The proportion of people experiencing severe psychological distress also continued to be higher in April 2021 (9.7%) than in February 2017 (8.4%).
    • Suicide rates have remained at pre-pandemic levels. The number of deaths by suicide in NSW, Victoria and Queensland have remained at similar levels to previous years.
    • From data for the period April to June 2020: Similar proportions of people had increased as had decreased exercise and other physical activity.
  • Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics, (14 July 2021). This publication presents results from the final Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, a longitudinal survey which collected information from the same panel each month. The June 2021 survey was run between 11 and 20 June 2021 via online forms and telephone interviews. The survey included 3,414 continuing participants, a response rate of 87% of the total panel.Insights into the prevalence and nature of impacts from COVID-19 on households in Australia.
  • Tracking wellbeing outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (April 2021): Continued social and economic recovery and resilience, Biddle, N and Gray, M, Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Social Research and Methods, (May 2021). The aim of this paper is to summarise economic and social wellbeing data from the April 2021 ANUpoll, the seventh in the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods Impact Monitoring Survey program. We find remarkable levels of resilience in Australian society and the economy, with life satisfaction back to what it was prior to the pandemic, and psychological distress at lower levels. Employment rates and average hours worked are not quite back to what they were pre-pandemic, but appear to have not been overly impacted by the removal of JobSeeker and JobKeeper at the end of March. There are still some ongoing areas of policy concern, with a number of Australians fearful of losing their job in the next 12 months, average household income is still well below the pre-COVID levels (and below those observed in November 2020), there are high rates of housing stress and key population groups remaining particularly impacted. Specifically, young Australians continue to have worse mental health outcomes than they did prior to the pandemic, and also are more likely to feel that they are struggling with housing expenses. Nonetheless, as long as infection rates and community transition remains low, Australia seems to be weathering the COVID-19 storm far better than most comparable countries.
  • Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), (22 February 2021). Managing mental health: Key findings:
    • Around two in five (42%) Australians reported their mental health to be excellent or very good in January 2021, while one in five (21%) reported their mental health as fair or poor.
    • One in five Australians (22%) reported their mental health in January 2021 as worse or much worse than before the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020.
    • Since March 2020, 67% of Australians used one or more strategies to manage their mental health.
  • COVID-19 and Mental Health: CSI response, Lisette Kaleveld, Catherine Bock, Rebekah Maycock-Sayce, Centre for Social Impact, (October 2020). It is predicted that the far-reaching economic and social impacts of COVID-19 will continue to take a toll on Australians’ mental health. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the second epidemic’ and evidence of this mental health burden is already emerging. This fact sheet aims to summarise ongoing concerns around the population-level psychological effects of the crisis, and synthesise the key elements of the mental health response.
  • Policy brief: COVID-19 and the need for action on mental health, United Nations, (13 May 2020). Although the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken. Moreover, specific populations groups are showing high degrees of COVID-19-related psychological distress. In every community, there are numerous older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions who are terrified and lonely. Emotional difficulties among children and adolescents are exacerbated by family stress, social isolation, with some facing increased abuse, disrupted education and uncertainty about their futures, occurring at critical points in their emotional development. Women are bearing a large brunt of the stress in the home as well as disproportionate impacts more generally. And people caught in fragile humanitarian and conflict settings risk having their mental health needs overlooked entirely.
  • The relationship between organised recreational activity and mental health, Street G and James R, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer Control, Curtin University, Government of Western Australia, Department of Sport and Recreation, (5 July 2019). A review of current literature indicates that people who participate in sports clubs and organised recreational activity enjoy better mental health, are more alert, and more resilient against the stresses of modern living. Participation in recreational groups and socially supported physical activity is shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and may reduce some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • In Sport, We Trust: how sport can bridge the UK trust deficit, SPORTED, (2019). The essential components of this work are new, innovative analysis of large national population datasets in the UK to establish a robust link between the activity (sport group engagement) and social outcomes (community cohesion measures), allowing us to report new findings and identify gaps in the evidence. This analysis includes Sport England’s own Active Lives dataset, which is analysed alongside other important datasets like Understanding Society, Taking Part and Community Life. All these datasets track participation in sports groups and almost all of the outcomes relevant to the DCMS Sporting Future Strategy and Sport England Evaluation Framework (health, wellbeing, individual development, community development). The target group of this study are young people aged 25 and below. Some key findings from the report include:
    • There is a trust deficit dividing the UK: young people from lower socio-economic groups are 23% less likely to trust their neighbours compared to those from higher socio-economic groups.
    • Sport clubs can help bridge this trust deficit. Young people who are members of a local sports club have: Greater trust in other people; A stronger sense of belonging to their community; More close friends; Greater levels of life satisfaction, happiness and health; and, Greater desire to give back to their community through volunteering.
    • People from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most to gain. When young people are part of a local sports club, those from low socio-economic groups report a ten-time higher increase in trust and a three-time higher increase in life satisfaction compared to those from higher socio-economic groups.
  • Yet another reason sport is good for you! Roy Morgan Research, Article 6118, (17 March 2015). The latest findings from Roy Morgan Research show that the 1.35 million Australian adults who participate regularly in some kind of team sport are noticeably less likely than the average Aussie to experience depression, anxiety or stress. Between 2013 and 2014, 25% of Australians aged 18+ reported experiencing stress at some point in the preceding 12 months, compared with 21% of those who regularly play a team sport. This difference is most striking among the under-25 age group, with all three conditions being far less common among those who play team sport on a regular basis. Incidence of anxiety fell from 31% to 17%, depression from 17% to 8%, and anxiety from 20% to 10%.
  • Returning to sport after a COVID-19 shutdown: understanding the challenges facing community sport clubs, Kiera Staley, Erica Randle, Alex Donaldson, et.al., Managing Sport and Leisure, (20 October 2021). Community sport clubs (CSCs) identified eight clusters of challenges related to returning to sport after the COVID-19 shutdown (in highest to lowest mean impact rating order): volunteers; club culture; health protocols; membership; finances; facilities; competition; and governance and division of responsibility. A positive observation in this study was that clubs felt they had the ability/capability to overcome most of the challenges they perceived, but their most pressing concern was the pressure on volunteers to do so. Some other key findings relating to mental wellbeing included:
    • Tensions between the “social” dimension of CSCs and the top-down directive to “get in, train, get out”. In essence, the health and safety protocols associated with managing a return to sport in a COVID-19 environment mean that CSCs are forced to focus, largely, on attending to the physical health needs of members. In doing so, clubs are constrained in their ability to contribute to the social and emotional needs of members, at least not in-person.
  • Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 Mental Disorders Collaborators, The Lancet, (8 October 2021). We found that depressive and anxiety disorders increased during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, depressive and anxiety disorders featured as leading causes of burden globally, despite the existence of intervention strategies that can reduce their effects. Meeting the added demand for mental health services due to COVID-19 will be difficult, but not impossible. Mitigation strategies should promote mental wellbeing and target determinants of poor mental health exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as interventions to treat those who develop a mental disorder.
  • Exploring the Association Between Sport Participation and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression in a Sample of Canadian High School Students, Jessica Murphy, Karen Patte, Philip Sullivan, et.al., Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, Volume 15(3), pp.268-287, (September 2021). The purpose of this study was to explore the relationship between athletic status and symptoms of depression and anxiety in a large sample of Canadian high school students. Our results support earlier work, concluding that sport participation has beneficial effect on adolescent mental health. Results indicated a significant association between Varsity Sport (VS) participation and symptoms of depression and anxiety in the sampled adolescents. In both males and females, those who participated in VS had lower anxiety and depression scores than those who did not participate in VS. This effect held true regardless of participation status in Outside of school sport (OSS); however, the effect was stronger among those who participated in both VS and OSS. Such results suggest an additive effect of sport participation, in that more sport participation is associated with lower depression and anxiety scores. Although the beneficial effect of VS participation was seen across sexes, the relationship between VS participation and anxiety and depression scores was stronger in males.
  • Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients, Robert Sallis, Deborah Rohm Young, Sara Y Tartof, et.al., British Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 55(19), pp.1099-1105, (September 2021). Consistently meeting physical activity guidelines was strongly associated with a reduced risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes among infected adults. We recommend efforts to promote physical activity be prioritised by public health agencies and incorporated into routine medical care.
  • Preferred policy options to assist post-COVID-19 mental health recovery: A population study, Karin Hammarberg, Thach Tran, Maggie Kirkman, et.al., Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 80(3), pp.424-434, (September 2021). An anonymous online survey of people aged 18 years and older in Australia was available from 1 July to 31 August 2020. It included 16 proposed policies which respondents rated as ‘Not at all helpful’, ‘Somewhat helpful’, or ‘Very helpful’ in assisting them recover from the COVID-19 restrictions. In all, 9220 people completed the survey. The most endorsed policy was ‘To have a publicly available plan about management of future pandemics’ which was rated as ‘very helpful’ by 46.1% of respondents. Four other policies were rated as ‘very helpful’ by more than 30% of respondents: two related to mental health support, one to individual financial support for living expenses, and one to support for community organisations. Government preparedness for future pandemics and support for mental health, individual finance, and community organisations should be policy priorities in the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. The findings can guide policy development to support people in Australia as they recover from COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been imposed to control its spread.
  • The effects of COVID-19 restrictions on physical activity and mental health of children and young adults with physical and/or intellectual disabilities, Nicola Theis, Natalie Campbell, Julie De Leeuw, et.al., Disability Health Journal, Volume 14(3), (July 2021). The aim of the study was to investigate the effects of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on physical activity and mental health of children and young adults with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Parents/carers completed an electronic survey in the UK between June–July 2020 on behalf of their child. The survey asked about physical activity levels and mental health during lockdown compared to before, access to specialist facilities and equipment to aid with physical activity, and the short- and long-term concerns around ongoing lockdown restrictions. Generally, respondents reported negative effects of lockdown restrictions, with 61% reporting a reduction in physical activity levels and over 90% reporting a negative impact on mental health (including poorer behaviour, mood, fitness and social and learning regression). Many respondents cited a lack of access to specialist facilities, therapies and equipment as reasons for this, and raised concerns about the long-term effects of this lack of access on their child’s mental health and physical activity levels. The survey highlights the negative impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the physical activity levels and mental health of children and young adults with disabilities and highlights the importance of addressing the needs of the disabled community as restrictions are eased.
  • A mental health paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryam Yvonne Marashi, Emma Nicholson, Michelle Ogrodnik, et.al., PLOS One, (1 April 2021). Using an online survey with 1669 respondents, we sought to understand why and how physical activity and sedentary behavior has changed by querying about perceived barriers and motivators to physical activity that changed because of the pandemic, and how those changes impacted mental health. The following results were statistically significant at p < .05. Consistent with prior reports, our respondents were less physically active (aerobic activity, -11%; strength-based activity, -30%) and more sedentary (+11%) during the pandemic as compared to 6-months before. The pandemic also increased psychological stress (+22%) and brought on moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Respondents’ whose mental health deteriorated the most were also the ones who were least active (depression r = -.21, anxiety r = -.12). The majority of respondents were unmotivated to exercise because they were too anxious (+8%,), lacked social support (+6%), or had limited access to equipment (+23%) or space (+41%). The respondents who were able to stay active reported feeling less motivated by physical health outcomes such as weight loss (-7%) or strength (-14%) and instead more motivated by mental health outcomes such as anxiety relief (+14%). Coupled with previous work demonstrating a direct relationship between mental health and physical activity, these results highlight the potential protective effect of physical activity on mental health and point to the need for psychological support to overcome perceived barriers so that people can continue to be physically active during stressful times like the pandemic.
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wellbeing and cognitive functioning of older adults, Sarah De Pue, Céline Gillebert, Eva Dierckx, et.al, Scientific Reports, Volume 11, Article #4636, (February 2021). COVID-19 took a heavy toll on older adults. In Belgium, by the end of August, 93% of deaths due to COVID-19 were aged 65 or older. Similar trends were observed in other countries. As a consequence, older adults were identified as a group at risk, and strict governmental restrictions were imposed on them. This has caused concerns about their mental health. Using an online survey, this study established the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults aged 65 years or older, and which factors moderate this impact. Participants reported a significant decrease in activity level, sleep quality and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Depression was strongly related to reported declines in activity level, sleep quality, wellbeing and cognitive functioning. Our study shows that the COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on the mental health of older adults. This implies that this group at risk requires attention of governments and healthcare.
  • The impact of Covid-19 pandemic on elderly mental health, Debanjan Banerjee, International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 35(12), pp.1466-1467, (December 2020). Social distancing, though a major strategy to fight COVID-19, is also a major cause of loneliness, particularly in settings like nursing-care or old-age homes which is an independent risk factor for depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide. Social connectedness is vital during the public health breakdown, more so when “ageism” becomes a factor for stigmatization in this marginalized population.
  • COVID-19, Aging, and Mental Health: Lessons From the First Six Months, Ipsit V.Vahia, The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 28(7), pp.691-694, (July 2020). In an effort to enforce social distancing policies, there have been lockdowns of varying stringency in most parts of the world. Because of their being at a higher risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19, older adults may self-restrict their activities and interactions even beyond the general population.This, in turn, appears to trigger a range of impact including increasing isolation and loneliness, disrupting daily routines and activities, changed access to essential services such as doctor's visits.
  • Childhood Sport Profiles Predict Mental Health in Adolescence, Isabelle Doré, Marie-Pierre Sylvestre, Catherine M Sabiston, et.al., Conference paper presented at the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity conference, Hong Kong, (June 2018). This study examines the longitudinal associations between three sport profiles (recreational, performance, non-participation) in childhood and mental health in adolescence. Participants include 756 children age 10-11 years at inception, from the longitudinal Monitoring Activities of Teenagers to Comprehend their Habits (MATCH) study. They self-reported their participation in organized and unorganized PA in questionnaires administered every 4 months over 5 years during class time. Involvement in performance or recreational sport profiles in all 5 years was associated with flourishing mental health, relative to involvement in ≤4 years. the authors conclude that sport participation, especially in performance sport, during childhood and adolescence is associated with higher mental health in adolescence. If replicated, these findings support developing strategies to encourage children to engage and remain involved in sports into adolescence, to positively impact mental health.
  • Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study, Sammi R Chekroud, Ralitza Gueorguieva, Amanda B Zheutlin, et.al., The Lancet Psychiatry, Volume 5(9), pp.739-746, (2018). This cross-sectional study analysed data from 1,237,194 people aged 18 years or older in the USA from the 2011, 2013, and 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System survey. It compared the number of days of bad self-reported mental health between individuals who exercised and those who did not. The findings indicated that individuals who exercised had 1·49 (43·2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise but were otherwise matched for several physical and socio-demographic characteristics. All exercise types were associated with a lower mental health burden (minimum reduction of 11·8% and maximum reduction of 22·3%) than not exercising. The largest associations were seen for popular team sports (22·3% lower), cycling (21·6% lower), and aerobic and gym activities (20·1% lower), as well as durations of 45 min and frequencies of three to five times per week.

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