How local government can improve wellbeing through physical activity

Dr Andrew McCulloch, CEO, Mental Health Foundation

Physical activity is well recognised to be important to health, and local authorities have a key role to play in promoting and enabling people to both take up activities and remain active. Physical activity improves mental - and physical - wellbeing through a variety of routes which need to be understood in a holistic, integrated way.

It has a particular role in fighting depression and reducing anxiety as well, of course, in tackling heart disease and other physical illnesses. It does this:

  • physically by improving blood flow and through the release of 'feel good' chemicals into the blood stream
  • psychologically by improving self-esteem and mastery as well as 'switching off' negative thoughts
  • socially by getting people out into leisure facilities or open spaces and meeting others.

It is the combination of these effects that helps improve wellbeing. Regular exercise has the best evidence base, but there is good evidence that all forms of regular activity such as walking, dance or gardening can help.

How wellbeing can increase physical activity

The relationship between physical activity and wellbeing is part of a bigger picture. There is a virtuous circle between the two - activity improves wellbeing but improved psychological wellbeing helps engagement with physical activity so improving physical health as well. The sense of agency and self-esteem itself helps the uptake of healthy activities. This is why resilient people - and communities - can often see improvements in their mental and physical health while others struggle to break the cycle of disadvantage.

For example, individuals with anxiety problems find it more difficult to start activities leading to further deterioration in their physical and mental health. This is why targeted interventions such as improving access to leisure facilities for excluded groups are needed as well as universal interventions to empower people to exercise in a way that is appropriate for them - such as messages delivered in education settings. This is also why negative and 'blaming' public health messages are disempowering, particularly for vulnerable individuals because they reduce their self esteem and lock them into unhealthy behaviours.

To be successful wellbeing interventions using exercise must address the specific needs of individuals and communities and local authorities are in a key position to do this.

Why local government is relevant

Many of the functions of local government are relevant to empowering people to use physical activity to promote wellbeing. Issues like equality of access to leisure services and open spaces are obvious, but other factors such as fear of crime, public transport, and school policies and facilities can have a marked effect on uptake. Local government's understanding of local needs and barriers, local demography and local opportunities is key.

For example, Cambridge City Council have two schemes called Start Up and ExSite which provide exercise opportunities for people with a range of physical and mental conditions as well as mobility problems. There is a strong range of activities offered across a variety of venues. Activities are allocated on the basis of peoples' preferences and level of need. These initiatives are strongly linked to health programmes and a further scheme to support people with enduring mental health problems.

16 December 2010

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