In this blog, Kitty McCarthy (Queen Mary University London), explores the association between physical activity and sports participation and young people’s wellbeing, and the potential economic value of this relationship.
The headline findings from Kitty’s analysis of the #BeeWell dataset are:
What did we do?
We explored the association between sports participation and physical activity and wellbeing and social outcomes of young people in Greater Manchester using data from the #BeeWell survey, which generated nearly 40,000 responses in its first annual wave in 2021.
We used robust statistical methods to quantify the potential impact of sports participation and physical activity on wellbeing and social outcomes. Our analyses accounted for factors that could potentially influence wellbeing and/or activity levels like income, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Our wellbeing measure was life satisfaction, self-rated on a 10-point scale, and we examined seven social outcomes, ranging from school connection to nutrition. We analysed data for both boys and girls separately, as well as combined, to identify any gender differences.
To provide monetary values for the outcomes, we used NHS costs savings, lifetime earnings from a degree and the value of a WELLBY (this is a ‘wellbeing year’ and equates to a one-point change in life satisfaction on a 0-10 scale; a monetary value of this change can be estimated by economists). This allows our findings to be used in policy making, as policymakers can directly compare the benefits of potential sports participation and physical activity policies against the cost of implementation.
How satisfied with life and active are the young people in the #BeeWell survey?
We found some big differences by gender in life satisfaction, physical activity and sports participation. Over a quarter of girls report low levels of life satisfaction (1 to 4), compared to 13% of boys. Nearly 70% of boys report high or very high life satisfaction (7 to 10) compared to less than 50% of girls.
A higher percentage of young people in our #BeeWell sample (66%) do not meet World Health Organisation guidelines for physical activity (at least an hour a day), than the UK average (47.2%, Active Lives Children and Young People Survey). Only a quarter of girls in the sample meet the activity guidelines, while around 40% of boys do. However, twice as many girls (12%) as boys (6%) participate in sports outside of school on most days. We generally see that those with higher levels of sports participation and physical activity also have higher wellbeing.
Are physical activity and sports participation associated with better social outcomes?
Increasing physical activity minutes can have significant benefits for overall social outcomes, with varying effects by gender. Increasing the number of minutes being physically active per week (including both inside and outside school) had positive associations with physical health, social connections and friendships, school connection and nutrition. Notably, boys experienced greater improvements in physical health, while girls benefited from enhanced school connections.
Increasing the number of days that young people participate in sports outside of school is associated with increased social connections and friendships, school connection, physical health, nutrition, sleep, happiness with attainment, and likelihood of pursuing further education. The biggest effects were observed in physical health, social connections and friendships. Notably, there was a big positive link with boy’s social connections compared to girls and to the other social outcome effects.
For the physical health, nutrition, and future education outcomes, we can attach a monetary value. Just one additional minute of physical activity per week over a year is associated with a higher likelihood of good physical health and nutrition, resulting in NHS cost savings of £0.41 and £0.001 per person (per minute) respectively. Increasing days participating in sports outside school can also enhance the likelihood of good physical health and nutrition, resulting in cost savings of £0.91 and £0.30 per person (per minute) respectively. Sports participation outside school is associated with increased likelihood of pursuing further education, valued at £1,306 per person in additional lifetime earnings.
Does physical activity and sports participation lead to higher wellbeing?
We used two types of statistical method to look at activity and wellbeing, and while they found slightly different results, the overall conclusion is clear: increasing minutes of physical activity and participating in sports outside of school is linked to better wellbeing.
One additional minute of physical activity per week over a year could increase life satisfaction by 0.001 to 0.45 points. This translates to an improvement of 0.1% to 45% of a WELLBY: moving from a rating of 7 out of 10 to 7.001 to 7.45, a potentially notable change. Using the value of a WELLBY, this increase is worth £13 to £5,850 per young person per year, the range representing the two different analytical methods used. Interestingly, one of our methods also revealed that the positive effect of physical activity is particularly significant for girls, with no impact for boys.
Increasing the number of days of physical activity could also increase life satisfaction. As increasing the number of days of physical activity is a much bigger lifestyle change than increasing weekly physical activity by one minute, we see expected bigger associations. Moving from participating in sports outside school from “once a week” to “most days” could increase wellbeing by 0.19% to 0.55% of a WELLBY, translated to a shift from 7 out of 10 life satisfaction to 7.19 to 7.55. Our two different analytical methods value this increase between £2,470 to £7,020 per young person per year. Similar to our physical activity findings above, one of our methods suggested that this positive impact is only for girls.
There is a positive association between sports participation and minutes of physical activity with both some social outcomes and individual subjective wellbeing for young people.
Meeting WHO guidelines for physical activity is associated with higher life satisfaction. Increasing physical activity per week has additional benefits for social connections, physical health, nutrition, and wellbeing. Boys and girls who regularly participate in sports outside school have higher wellbeing. Increasing the regularity of sports participation outside school also benefits social connections, school connections, physical health, nutrition, happiness with attainment, likelihood for further education, and wellbeing.
Sports and physical activity have clear benefits beyond health. Notably, for both sports variables, the social connection effect is larger for boys. Social connection plays a crucial role in overall health and wellbeing and is also a vital skill for success in the workplace. Our research indicates that although boys engage in more physical activity, they are less active outside of school and may benefit from increasing this more than girls. Girls are less active and less satisfied with their lives. Our analysis suggests that they have potential to benefit more than boys from both increasing sports participation outside of school and minutes of physical activity per week.
Our analysis was cross-sectional as it was based on the first annual wave of #BeeWell data. This makes conclusions about cause and effect more challenging. So, while sports and physical activity can increase wellbeing, being happier also makes you more likely to participate in sports and physical activity. Now that there are two waves of #BeeWell survey data available, we can use more sophisticated statistical methods that will enable us to explore these relationships in more detail.