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TRACEY CROUCH: Sport is a great way to combat loneliness and boost mental health

Tracey Crouch, Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford, is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fighting loneliness and connected communities, and previously served as Minister for Sport.

Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, he has written exclusively for Sportsmail about the important role sport plays in improving mental health and combating loneliness.

Loneliness is not a rarity in society. As the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, loneliness is one of the main problems facing societies around the world. And the pandemic has changed our social connections forever.

Even now, with the relaxation of post-COVID restrictions, research from the Campaign to End Loneliness is a stark read, with 3.3 million (6.3 percent) people saying they feel “chronically lonely.” “often or always.

The tolls of lockdowns and social separation have stagnated for many.

Tracey Crouch MP, former Minister for Sport, has written about the importance of sport in boosting mental wellbeing to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

Tracey Crouch MP, former Minister for Sport, has written about the importance of sport in boosting mental wellbeing to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

Crouching down on the pitch showing off her skills during a match for the women's parliamentary team

Crouching down on the pitch showing off her skills during a match for the women’s parliamentary team

The UK is in the midst of a growing mental health crisis, intensified by the pandemic, but the evidence is clear that being active is good for our minds.

Active lifestyles are credited with 30 million fewer GP visits and 375,000 fewer people diagnosed with depression annually.

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University valued the role of sport and physical activity in the nation’s well-being at £42bn a year, more than triple the total NHS spending on mental health in England in 2018.

Recognizing the scale and severity of the problem, age-appropriate interventions are needed now more than ever. This is where I think sport and physical activity can be fundamental.

I watch, participate in and once coached sports, as well as having served as Minister of Sports, so I know first-hand how sport and physical activity can change lives for happiness, resilience and well-being.

It’s the social connections you make through sports and activity that can help combat loneliness.

Whether it’s taking a community dance class or being part of a grassroots sports team (no matter how good or bad your team is!), sharing moments gives us a sense of community.

Hackney Marshes, in East London, is one of the great centers of grassroots football.

Hackney Marshes, in East London, is one of the great centers of grassroots football.

We bond and connect in ways we might not even think imaginable, from tying our tennis laces to going out on the court on a cold, wet November night to play against a group of complete strangers.

Sport is the great leveller. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing in common with these people before you meet, when you go out on the court or in the gym you become part of something bigger.

Suddenly, there’s a lot to talk about: the tactics, the mishaps, the team laughs and the weather. And that’s true even if you exercise alone.

There is a shared language that walkers and runners know well. Eye contact, smiles and nods. Everything is connection, and the lack of connection is what is at the heart of that empty feeling of loneliness.

Action from a netball match in Newcastle between Greencroft and Great Park last year

Action from a netball match in Newcastle between Greencroft and Great Park last year

Sport England recents Adult Active Lives Report showed that people who practice sport and physical activity are less likely to feel lonely.

Conversely, those who are less active feel more alone, perhaps because they are missing out on all those opportunities to connect.

It’s not just for the young and fit: sports clubs and organizations have figured out how to flex their offerings for all ages and abilities.

Activities like soccer and netball, a version of the sport that I have tried and love, have been life changing for those looking for a softer team sport. They’re also a shining reminder that it’s never too late to get involved.

But there is much more that can and should be done as loneliness continues to pervade society.

In 2020, the British Red Cross and Cooperative supported an APPG Loneliness Inquiry chaired by MP Neil O’Brien, now Minister for Leveling Up.

I provided evidence to the research and wholeheartedly endorsed its key finding to reestablish an intergovernmental approach to tackling loneliness.

Hanging up the goals before a Sunday league match at Wingrave, Buckinghamshire

Hanging up the goals before a Sunday league match at Wingrave, Buckinghamshire

As co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities, my brilliant colleagues and I will continue to work towards the shared ambition of tackling loneliness and increasing our social connections with each other.

Until everyone feels that they are not alone, the work must and will continue. And I firmly believe that sport and physical activity should be at the center.

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