Physical activity has numerous benefits to protect individuals against a range of acute and chronic health conditions. However, an active lifestyle can offer much more than direct benefits to mental and physical health. At an individual level, it can provide a vehicle to learn new skills, develop confidence, socialise, and volunteer. Beyond individuals, physical activity can provide people and communities with purpose, enhance connectedness, facilitate resilience and develop social capital. Our research has sought to develop understanding into the myriad of benefits derived from an active lifestyle, but also to address the individual, social, organisational and environmental factors facilitate activity for all.

Paul and colleagues led the evaluation of the Essex Local Delivery Pilot (LDP) until December 2021. The Essex LDP is one of 12 site chosen by Sport England to test innovative approaches to tackle physical inactivity and reduce inequalities. The Essex LDP is led by Active Essex and is seeking to make transformational change to build healthier and more active communities. Mirroring findings across England, the Essex LDP has demonstrated the importance of putting people, communities and physical activity at the heart of policy and practice. To facilitate this process, individuals and organisations participated in innovative training programmes to understand and embrace citizen-led approaches to design and implement initiatives to promote physical activity and wider health outcomes. This exciting work is seeing organisations work together across different system settings (e.g. in health, education, social care, planning) to make physical activity part of people’s everyday life.

Physical activity encompasses more than sport and structured exercise programmes. Physical activity can take various forms and occur in many places, and local organisations and resources are often central to this. Paul and colleagues also recently completed a project to understand the types and intensities of activities performed at Together We Grow CIC (The Big Garden, Highwoods Country Park, Colchester). When the oxygen consumption of individuals was measured while completing four gardening activities (watering, weeding, planting, composting), on average, individuals worked at moderate intensity levels. As such, many typical activities conducted in a community garden could help individuals meet current UK physical activity guidelines by doing enjoyable and stimulating tasks. Beyond the physical benefits of gardening, individuals experienced positive social and psychological outcomes through shared experiences such as planting, harvesting, cooking, and eating healthy produce.

Ruth led the evaluation of the EU (Interreg 2Seas Social Innovation) funded Step-By Step project that developed a model to address poor health, wellbeing and employability of men the local communities of four European countries (UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands). Men’s Sheds were originally established in Australia to provide retired and isolated men with a group space to pursue hobbies such as wood and metal crafts. The Step-By-Step project adapted the Sheds model to offer a range of collective activities (including physical activities) to provide a backdrop to facilitate conversations and mentorship around skill development, health and employability. Shedders (attendees) reported better physical health, mental wellbeing, social connectedness and greater confidence in their skills as a result of attending. By working “shoulder to shoulder” on activities, shedders were provided with a non-judgemental environment to raise health concerns with their peers. Reinforcement and strengthening of these peer relations was established through regular attendance.

Like physical activity, music has been recognised for its potential to address physical and mental health concerns. Rock Drumming is a physically and mentally demanding activity involving the co-ordination of multiple limbs to music. Ruth is part of the Clem Burke Drumming Project that has explored health and developmental benefits of Rock Drumming. We have conducted a number of studies using electronic drum kits with school groups and via individual instruction, to assess the social, emotional, cognitive and skills benefits of instruction for children and adolescents with a range of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Using neuroscience, motor control, developmental and cognitive psychology evidence we have established that drumming instruction can improve a number of social, education and health outcomes such as better peer relationships, reductions in impulsivity and hyperactivity for children and adolescents with a range of complex difficulties including Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Increasingly, researchers recognise that there are many ways to foster an active lifestyle with different sections of the community. In tandem, physical activity is recognised by society for the derived benefits beyond promotion of physical health. Activities that people find satisfying, fun and stimulating are ones that will be adopted long-term thereby providing people with greater benefits. By promoting flexibility in what activities the individual or community choose to invest in we would hope that the reciprocal benefits can be gained by the many and not the few.