Tracey Crouch MP, who was appointed the world’s first Loneliness Minister in January 2018, writes exclusively for Sport Industry Group in Loneliness Awareness Week. The former Sports Minister and current senior advisor to sports-communications agency The Playbook, launched the UK Government’s Loneliness strategy last year and this week addresses the misconceptions of loneliness and the role sport can play in tackling the issue.
Being the world’s first at something would normally come with a medal or at the very least a certificate but for me, being the world’s first loneliness minister, while a privilege, it was also tinged with a sad recognition that we as a global civilisation are suffering from a silent and sometimes debilitating condition, incurable by any medication. Loneliness is an illness that has until recently been left to fester, unrecognised and as a result grown into an epidemic that many countries, including us in the UK, now need to deal with.
This week is Loneliness Awareness Week and a series of organisations have launched a parallel initiative called “Let’s Talk Loneliness”. Why? Because it is important that we address the stigma around admitting feeling lonely. Research has found nearly three quarters (74%) of people said when they felt lonely, they didn’t tell anyone despite most having someone they could count on. But what may come as a surprise to many it that 16-24 year olds are likely to feel lonely more often that the over 55 year olds. Additional new research confirms that people in cities are more likely to feel lonely than the rest of the UK and a quarter of adults say the weekend, when they are not working, is when they feel most lonely.
So why does this matter? Because a significant number of those reading this will identify with feeling lonely as 1 in 5 of us always or often do. Because the health and wellbeing consequences of loneliness are significant – the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity and accounts for a fifth of GP appointments every day. And because it impacts on productivity as well as health.
But there are many ways to help tackle loneliness and getting involved in sport is one; researchers have found that people who do regular physical activity have up to a 30% lower risk of depression.
I am not just saying that because as the former sports minister I believe that sport pretty much solves everything but because it is proven that participating in sport or physical activity creates connections and relationships that work beyond the pitch, court or field.
It doesn’t have to be heavy sweating team sports either – healthy walks are growing in their number and catered to all accessibility needs but create connections while out in the fresh air – a study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Walking sports like football and netball are also as much about the friendships as the sport and it is good to see that clubs are popping up in urban and rural areas. One might consider whether the decline in PE at secondary school is in itself fuelling the rise in late teenage/young adult loneliness. Being in a team creates a relationship beyond the classroom that a smartphone will never replicate.
I think sport gets that they have an important role too. The EFL announcement this week 12 clubs will work with local and national partners to run ‘Extra Time Hubs’, bringing older people together is an example of how those, like football clubs, that have a heart in a community can use it to support others. This is happening across many sports but so much more can be done to use the power of sport to reach out to those whose connections with society have been lost.
Last October I published the Loneliness Strategy which had a number of recommendations about how we tackle loneliness. It is not something that will happen overnight and will take a generation to change but the first and simplest thing we can do is talk about loneliness. Identifying it as an issue will help us reduce its prevalence among all age groups and one thing that can help create the connectivity is the group camaraderie of sport and physical activity.