Sport, dance and young people’s wellbeing: what works?

Today we publish new international evidence on the impact sport, dance and physical activity have on the wellbeing of 15-24 year olds.



Download the sport, dance and wellbeing briefing
Download the full evidence review

Read the case studies from Ireland, Scotland and England.



Key findings:

  • Yoga, and the Tai-chi like movements of Baduanjin-qigong, provided strong evidence of their effectiveness at reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger, while improving attention spans and how the young people reported their overall wellbeing.
  • Empowering young girls through peer-supported exercise has a positive effect on their self-belief.
  • Aerobic and hip-hop dance can lead to greater increases in happiness compared to other activities like ice-skating or body conditioning.
  • Taking part in ‘exer-gaming’ programmes, like Wii Fit, in groups can help encourage overweight young people to participate in physical activity and make friends.

The research was carried out by our culture and sport research team in Brunel University London, The London School of Economics and the Universities of Winchester and Brighton.

What works to boost social relations?

As part of our Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme we are exploring the evidence on how the way organisations design community infrastructure can support, or hinder, social relations. We are publishing our scoping review today, and you can download it here.

The Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together took place last week. It was a national street party, a chance to meet your neighbours and to make a statement:  there is more that unites us than divides us. With the launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission earlier this year, there’s a welcome focus on the social relations that form the foundation of our society.

When we talk about social relations, we mean the exchanges between us and the physical and social environment around us. There is good evidence that the strength of our social relations is an important determinant of individual health and wellbeing. And it’s also a central component of community wellbeing.

Before starting our programme of work, our Centre talked to different people and organisations around the country about what community wellbeing meant to them.

People continually told us that the relationships within their community, and the spaces they lived, relaxed and worked in, mattered a great deal to them. Improving social relations for community wellbeing means promoting those conditions in society that bring people together. It enables us to participate in community life and allows us to feel part of a network of shared meanings. That’s why social relations are an important component of our Theory of Change.

So, what do we know about how to boost social relations? This was the question we tackled in our new scoping review.

What did we find?

We searched widely and found 34 existing reviews that examined community-based interventions or changes in policy, organisation or environment that were designed to boost social relations within a community, and measured community-level outcomes. A number of recommendations were made about what works, including:

  • Create good neighbourhood design and maintenance of physical spaces such as good meeting places, public parks, safe and pleasant public spaces, public seating, accessible and walkable spaces, and local shops.
  • Support mixed populations – in terms of income, ethnicity and so on – in new neighbourhood developments.
  • Increase the number of local events such as car boot sales, markets, and street parties.
  • Create ways for local people to share information such as notice boards or email groups.
  • Provide greater opportunities for residents to influence decisions affecting their neighbourhoods and encouraging engagement

We also found evidence suggesting that it’s not easy to improve neighbourliness through large-scale policies. Instead, it is better to encourage local understanding and action.

What next?

Based on this scoping review we are now carrying out a systematic review of interventions to boost social relations through improvements in community infrastructure (places and spaces).

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified “neighbouring and spaces for interaction” as a research priority, and the Legatum report on wellbeing and policy highlights evidence of links between the physical environment and social relationships, and refers to a ‘magic formula‘ of having easy opportunities for social interaction but retaining the ability to choose when, who, and where we meet.

‘Bumping spaces’ – places designed for people to meet up in informal settings – were identified as a priority theme in our collaborative development phase. Despite the recognised importance of the topic, we did not find any existing systematic reviews of how community places or spaces affect social relations. Our task is to fill that gap.

We’ll be asking for your help

While we’ll be searching books and academic publications, we know that lots of evidence is not written up formally. Instead, it sits with community organisations who have evaluated their own interventions, but perhaps haven’t published them publicly. Please look out for our call for evidence, when we’ll be asking for your help to circulate to your networks to uncover the crucial clues about what works best to boost social relations.

You can sign up to receive an alert when the call goes live by emailing

Election 2017: can wellbeing data help unpack what matters?

Uncertainty appears to be the new normal when it comes to politics. The traditional lenses we use to examine public attitudes and behaviour, like income and GDP or healthy life expectancy, are still part of the mix. But it is wellbeing concepts that give us a really useful vocabulary to talk about the incredible changes we’re seeing in attitudes at a local and national level.

The most important early observations from a wellbeing perspective are:

1. Governance, specifically trust in the delivery of public services, matters. This is something that’s relevant all the time, not just at elections. Governance is often overlooked when it comes to it’s effect on our wellbeing, compared to other things like health, personal finance or relationships. However, it’s now coming to the forefront as we try to better understand what voting behaviour is telling us about people’s lived experiences.

Using the World Bank indicators, analysis shows that what ranks highest in importance for people are ‘effectiveness of government services and efficiency of government and policy delivery’. This is particularly important at lower GDP levels, but still holds true in richer countries.

The European Social Survey suggests that once a country reaches a good level of GDP, other governance factors become important, particularly ‘voice and accountability’, ‘political stability and absence of violence and terrorism’.

The evidence shows that when people are satisfied with the way they are governed, wellbeing is higher and more equal. Political stability bucks this trend, presumably because the longer a government remains in power, the more people feel that their interests and opinions are not being taken into account.

In the UK we have seen a decline in views of  government effectiveness since 2004. There have also been sharp changes in voice, accountability and political stability between 2002 and 2006.

fig5The last factor cited in the survey – ‘absence of violence and terrorism’ – has taken on new relevance following the three terrorist attacks that happened in Manchester and London during the election campaign. Hopefully more analysis will be carried out to fully understand its exact impact, but it certainly created an unprecedented context in which people cast their votes.

2. Being seen and heard matters. The European Social Survey suggests that two conditions affect our perceived satisfaction with society: unemployment levels and ‘perceived quality of society and societal wellbeing’, which includes things like quality of public services and feeling listened to.

We’ve seen high employment in the UK, and arguably this has cushioned the UK from the wellbeing impacts of the financial crisis. But  many clearly “feel more acutely that their interests and opinion are not being taken into account.” We can see that the financial crisis recovery didn’t reach everyone.

Additionally, the strength of our social fabric gives countries resilience and there are additional wellbeing benefits when a country’s strong social relations can help them weather crises. An interesting example is Iceland.

3. Wellbeing, and wellbeing inequality, can tell us more of the real story than income and political voting records alone when it comes to the mood of the country, or any given area. It was the an important indicator, for example, of how different regions voted in the EU Referendum.

It would be interesting to see more analysis at a constituency level before drawing too many specific conclusions. However, it’s an exciting time to be in the midst of a new way of measuring and understanding what really matters to people – which is all wellbeing really is about.

We already know, from research carried out by our evidence team at the London School of Economics, that when average wellbeing drops, an incumbent government is more likely to be booted out. When it rises, this has little effect on voting patterns. We can see that average national wellbeing rose between 2011 and 2015, and then levelled off in 2016, and we’re left with tantalising questions about its relationship to our current hung parliament.The election raises important issues for our Centre. The changing world of work, how people view their public services, social trust are just some of the elements that are shifting the balance of politics as usual. We need to keep working to understand what it means to be human and what matters to us most.

We must focus our collective efforts on creating the conditions to improve our wellbeing. This means:  

  • policy that values what matters to people including dignity, control, trust and place
  • a focus on societal advancement with human beings at the centre and the purpose of the wellbeing of future generations.  

These problems can’t be solved by government, business or charities alone. New types of collaboration are needed. This is what we aim to achieve as a collaborating centre at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. And we’re looking forward to sharing new evidence over the coming months that will help policymakers and practitioners make better decisions to improve people’s lives.