The physical health benefits of football are obvious. But what we rarely hear about are the benefits related to mental health. A new study has finally proved a link between the beautiful game and mental health, and the results are exciting.

Mental health is a broad spectrum of issues, many of which can be positively affected by being part of a football team. But that’s not all; the study also found that playing regularly boosts our social confidence and sense of purpose. 

There has been anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon since the game was invented. Ask any grassroots player, and they’ll tell you that the benefits stretch far beyond what happens on the pitch. Being part of something bigger than yourself and contributing to community spirit are rewards that transcend success. But a recent study has provided solid evidence of this link between football and mental health. 

The facts about exercise and mental health

Studies have shown that moderate depression responds to exercise equally as well as anti-depressant drugs. The obvious advantage of using exercise is that playing football for an hour or two doesn’t bring on any unwanted side-effects. 

A study at Harvard University revealed that running for just 15 minutes per day reduces the risk of serious depression by 26%. The study also revealed that keeping to a regime of regular exercise can stop recoverees from relapsing. 

Exercise releases endorphins and other mood-boosting chemicals inside the brain. A combination of neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns lifts our mood. This is why some people report feelings of euphoria during rigorous exercise. 

The recent pandemic has increased the stress and anxiety people face every day. Dwelling on economic, familial and social problems often exacerbates mental health issues. But playing football regularly offers a little escapism. Meeting with other people who are going through the same issues can put things in perspective. And being distracted for a few hours on a football pitch is a great way to leave life’s problems behind.

Improved social connections

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of community spirit and togetherness. Millions of people have been cut off from their own communities for months, so a sense of perspective has been developed across the world. We all need emotional connections… something to bring us together. And for millions around the world, that something is football. 

A recent study revealed that players and coaches are brought together by football from all walks of life. The beautiful game is the common bond -- and the catalyst for productive social connections. These new-found relationships empower people to improve various aspects of their life, whether it’s at home or in the workplace.

During the current pandemic, football -- when it can be played -- is forging community spirit. Grassroots clubs are often the heart of local towns and villages. They don’t just compete, they help the less fortunate. And this instils a sense of achievement for everyone concerned. 

Fighting suicide

Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 34, and it has been this way since 2001. Suicide rates have spiked in recent weeks due to isolation and economic troubles. But football could be a way back for many.

A recent initiative involved weekly football sessions for people with mental health issues. Four professional and semi-professional clubs teamed up with organisers of a mental health anti-stigma charity to create a “positive and inclusive” environment for football. 

At first, the initiative involved non-competitive footballing activities. However, this didn’t prove popular, and recruitment was slow. Once competitive action was introduced, the scheme became a great success.

The people taking part in the initiative recognised the dedication and positivity demonstrated by the coaches involved. This instilled a sense of pride and dedication in the participants -- giving them extra strength to fight their various mental health problems. 

Exercise improves mental health

There is clear evidence that regular exercise promotes good mental health. Combine this with the teamwork and social aspect of grassroots football, and you have a powerful weapon in the fight against depression, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem. 

It has been shown that physical activity alleviates symptoms of depression as effectively as prescribed medication -- without any of the side-effects. Regular exercise also plays a role in the treatment of severe, chronic mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia. 

A cost-effective way to treat a nation

The NHS spends millions on treatment programmes for depression and chronic mental health problems. Much of this money is spent on prescription drugs from abroad. Are we missing out on a fantastic opportunity? 

The people behind this recent study have suggested that there should be a more structured approach that involves collaboration between mental health service providers, football authorities, clubs, players, and coaches. They also suggest that professional clubs should play an active role in initiatives that use football to fight the mental health crisis. 

Football-based programmes aren’t cheap, but they’re cost-effective. Billions are spent on drugs for mental health ailments every year. For just a fraction of that cost, footballing programmes that target vulnerable people can deliver similar results. It’s time to invest in Britain’s national game -- for the health of the nation.