Why sport is more important than ever before - A look at how sports helps improve mental health and wellbeing, particularly during a pandemic where so much is going on around us.

It’s the end of 2019. A new decade is upon us, and 2020 shapes up to be a big year for sporting fans.

It’s the year of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Athletes have been dedicating their life to this event for not only the past four years, but their lives. In addition, fans are looking forward to such an event to see their nation represented with pride across a number of different sports.

It’s a big deal. It comes around once every four years. As does the European Football Championship, which unites football fans around the world in a month of competitive spirit. Cricket had two World Cups scheduled for 2020 (men’s and women’s), with the prestigious Indian Premier League sandwiched in-between. With Tennis Grand Slams, the prestigious NBA and WNBA competitions, Major League Baseball and more to look forward to, sports fans were gearing up for a huge year.

A shock to the system

When all came to a standstill in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it forced a re-think of many aspects of our daily lives, i.e. remote working, the need for travel, spending time with family and more.

Amid the challenging circumstances, it also served as a reminder of the impact that sport has on all involved; from professional athletes to casual sportspeople to sports fans. What sport provides is a release from the hustle and bustle of every day life. Something to look forward to. Something to enjoy.

This factor plays a key role in mental wellbeing for sports fans, along with the physical benefits of going out and playing sports. Going to a stadium, bar or friend’s house to watch the game was part of life. As was going down to the local park for a game of football or basketball. It was taken for granted. All of a sudden, that was missing, as sport was shutdown nearly everywhere around the world.

The impact of sport on mental health

Sporting organizations were facing losses of millions of dollars due to the pandemic.

But, there was a deeper, underlying issue at play. Communities were left in situation where both playing and watching sports had to be put to the side as the world tried to figure out what to do with a pandemic upon us. Sport’s pause due to lockdowns all over the globe left a gap. And, when you couple this with the financial and social challenges of a pandemic, a release becomes even more important.

Both participating in and watching sports has a profound impact on mental health. In fact, according to the recent Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Study, running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of depression by 26%. Also, participating in both individual and team sports allows people to express themselves, building confidence and social skills in the process. Research shows that increased exercise and sport provides:

  • Help for depression and anxiety
  • Decreased stress
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Better sleep
  • Brain boost

And when live sport returned to TV screens and web apps, fans responded at large, provided it was affordable and easy to access. The recent Indian Premier Cricket League, which had to be played in the United Arab Emirates rather than cricket-crazy India, saw a 28% increase in viewership compared to the 2019 edition.

Also, while TV ratings have been down in American sports, a change in viewing habits, including watching highlights and replays in one’s own time, still shows that sport has an important role to play in providing an escape. This is especially important as there is a significant number of sports on at one time, as many restarted at odd times of the year due to the pandemic.

So, with so much going on around us, sports help free the mind and give us something else to focus on for a little while. Such a situation allows for balance, which is vital for mental health and wellbeing.