Providing a level playing field for people with mental health issues and learning disabilities

By Amanda McDonald, Sported volunteer

According to the EFDS (English Federation of Disability Sport), there are approximately 1.5 million people in the UK who have a learning disability. Amongst them, there are around 450,000 adults with Autistic spectrum disorders in England, about half of whom have a learning disability (Department of Health).


In addition, one in four British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, and one in six experiences this at any given time (The Office for National Statistics).


So, what role can sport play in boosting the welfare of brains as well as bodies?


The role of sport in addressing mental health issues

The benefits of sport in contributing to physical health and well-being are well documented. As well as yielding personal rewards such as maintaining a healthy weight, and increasing strength, speed and dexterity, regular participation in sport also helps to combat mental health issues. A focus on the body has a grounding effect on participants and helps to clear the mind of its lingering detritus – life pressures, work stress, family and money issues. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins (our bodies’ natural mood enhancers) and then afterwards helps the mind and body to relax. This can provide welcome relief and lasting positive effects for the ‘one in four’.


The benefits of an active lifestyle to those with a mental health issue or disability

So why isn’t everyone using sport to stimulate their bodies and soothe their minds? Certainly, Sport England’s Active People statistics from December 2016 show that 1.60 million disabled people now play sport once a week. But according to the ‘Life Opportunity’ survey, 72% of disabled adults said they suffered at least one barrier to playing sport compared to (54%) of non-disabled adults.


Overcoming hurdles

It is a collective responsibility for everyone those at the upper end of sports leadership down to those who deliver grassroots sport, to help would-be participants to access the right activity and to overcome any barriers to participation.  Having volunteered for Sported for nearly six years, I am proud to have been involved with those at the heart of communities who are absolutely committed to helping people to overcome hurdles to participate in sport.


Active for All (from Improving Lives Plymouth)

One such organisation is Improving Lives Plymouth, a Sported member organisation that delivers a programme called ‘Active for All’ which promotes physical activity in adults with mental health problems and/or learning disabilities. The programme helps to deliver gentle activities such as Boccia, walking and ‘Oomph!’ (read more at to help people to increase their physical and mental well-being. In my capacity as a Sported mentor, I’ve developed a contact strategy for the caring community, designed to drive engagement with decision-makers in care homes, gyms and leisure centres to help this incredible organisation make a difference to even more people. And, with a little help from my Yes Agency friends, developed a new promotional flyer for Active for All.


It’s been clear throughout this project that the real ‘champions’ are those who dedicate their time, skills and enthusiasm to providing opportunities for those with mental health issues or learning difficulties with a new way to improve their mental and physical health.