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Aug 24, 2023 | by Nancy Hey

Belonging and wellbeing through physical activity: reflecting on Youth Sport Trust, Youth Summit 2023

Young people’s wellbeing is the nation’s future wellbeing, and one way we can support this is through physical activity. Analysis of wellbeing data shows that young people who take part in physical activity rate their overall wellbeing higher than other groups, are happier in general, and find their life more worthwhile.   

Yet, according to Sport England, less than half of young people are meeting the recommended guidelines of taking part in sport for an average of 60 minutes or more every day.

To understand what needs to change so that every young person can find a place to belong in sport, we joined over 80 young people at the Youth Sport Trust Youth Summit in July, sharing our knowledge and understanding about promoting wellbeing within and through physical activity.

Here, our Executive Director, Nancy Hey, reflects on the summit, and discusses the existing knowledge and resources.

Young people and physical activity

As we enjoy a summer of sport, including the football Women’s World Cup, it’s an opportune time to think further about why it matters that young people get active and how to help that happen more consistently. 

We know that taking part in physical activity can be good for our wellbeing. It makes us more satisfied and happier with life, feel less anxious and depressed and more purposeful. People who exercise outdoors and with others rate their wellbeing as higher. This is true for younger groups too, particularly for those who engage on a weekly basis

Importantly, physical activity helps improve physical health which is what helps maintain life satisfaction. Whilst young people and their parents strongly value getting a good job and having good mental health as important for young people now, the importance of physical health and physical activity has dropped away. This makes a big difference in both the short and long term.  

The current evidence indicates that, depending on the type of activity and the way it’s delivered, taking part in physical activity is associated with wellbeing improvements related to:

  • Social connectedness
  • Sense of purpose
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Relaxation
  • Creative skills and expression
  • Aspiration and ambition

For young people, having a trusted adult, supportive friends, something positive to do and regular physical activity, has a wide range of measurable wellbeing benefits including providing resilience to life events.

The role of enjoyment

Taking part in sport and physical activity can sometimes be associated with negative wellbeing, particularly when linked to concerns about confidence, competency and capability. There are also potential impacts on wellbeing of #Fitspiration social media content

Already being motivated, and enjoying sport and activity, accounts for at least half the wellbeing benefits at secondary school age. So, encouraging motivation and enjoyment earlier can be vital to achieving positive impacts and have a lifelong benefit. 

Girls are less likely to be active than boys and also report worse emotional health. It is therefore important to understand how to increase and sustain participation in physical activity of young women and girls. Related research suggests that the clearest link between wellbeing and sustained activity was evidenced through participants’ increased confidence.  Projects that focused on creating a nurturing environment in which people were treated as individuals saw the biggest wellbeing gains. Taking a ‘small steps’ approach to introducing, or reintroducing, physical activity into someone’s life is more effective than huge targets.

Youth Summit

In July of this year, the Youth Sport Trust hosted their first ever Youth Summit where more than 80 young people came together from across England, Scotland and Wales, to Loughborough University to co-design together a youth call to action.
Attendees were between the ages of 16-25 and came from a range of different backgrounds and experiences, but they all had a shared need to make a positive change in sport and physical activity. The event was fully co-produced with a Youth Steering Group, and was the first time they have ever delivered this style of event.

Themed, ‘The Power of Connection’, over the weekend, young people connected with one another through a range of activities and discussions, to shape call-to-actions around celebrating diversity, encouraging choice, and promoting wellbeing.

By the end of the conference, young people agreed on calls to action related to these three areas. The ones connected to wellbeing include:

  1. Implement both physical and mental health support and resources for physical activity and sport providers
  2. Make sure every local community has regular high quality opportunities for a variety of physical activity, and the benefits are promoted 
  3. Support the development of a more representative workforce to meet the needs of participants from grassroots to elite.

The Youth Sport Trust is a UK based charity which aims to improve every young person’s education and development through sport and play. The summit was supported by Sport England and the National Lottery

We know that:

  • The UK is ranked lowest out of 24 European countries for the proportion of 15 year olds with high life satisfaction (PISA, 2018)
  • Only 45% of young people are meeting the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day (Sport England 2021) 
  • One in seven children are obese by the time they start school, increasing to one in four by year six (NHS, 2021).

We’re often talking different languages when it comes to wellbeing so getting on the same page matters. When we discussed wellbeing at the summit we focused on definitions and concepts, summarising what we know about activity, and broader evidence on improving wellbeing.

Discover more

To find more analysis, evidence and recommendations for action, see our resources about physical activity, young people, connection and wellbeing.

  • Sport, dance and young people – Our briefing and report, based on a systematic review that was carried out to look at how taking part in sport and dance affects the wellbeing of young people between 15 and 24 years old. 
  • Girls’ and womens’ participation – In this blog, the organisation Spirit of 2012 outlined key findings from an investigation into encouraging more women and girls into physical activity, including what helped participation and retention.
  • Social capital – We brought together what is known about improving neighbourhood belonging, social support and community cohesion in a rapid evidence review.
  • The relationship between physical activity and wellbeing – This secondary analysis explores the link between subjective wellbeing and participation in sport or physical activity among healthy people between 16 and 25 years old.
  • What works to improve subjective wellbeing – This briefing is based on a rapid evidence assessment of impact evaluations that use the personal wellbeing measures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS4). (Levelling up Mission 8 outcomes)
  • Impact of grassroots football – The Football Association (FA) produced a report into the value of grassroots football, using survey data from 9,000 respondents. Their findings showed positive economic impacts, health savings for the NHS, and benefits to individual health, confidence and happiness levels.

Find out more about the Youth Summit.


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