Family playing soccer

Did you know that playing sport keeps your brain sharp and your self-esteem high? Health writer Amy Bonifas explores the latest science behind why sport is so good for us – and which sports have the biggest health benefits.

The past few weeks have been a dream for sport fanatics – from the hype around the FIFA Women’s World Cup, to epic tennis at Wimbledon, and a nail biting cricket final that saw England take home the trophy. The Vitality Netball World Cup lit up Liverpool this July and our very own Vitality Roses did us proud by taking the bronze medal in a closely-contested play-off with South Africa.

But the benefits of sport go much further than the fun you have watching it on telly. Playing sport keeps us healthy, and getting stuck into a game gives us a powerful combination of physical and mental health benefits. Playing football, for instance, can not only reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 50% but also boost our mental wellbeing.

In fact, adults regularly participating in sport and exercise have a 34% lower risk of death than those who don’t. New research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports that playing team, rather than solo, sports could add years to our lives. This is likely due to the social connection – “probably the single most important feature of living a healthy, happy life,” says study co-author Dr James O’Keefe.

Here, we ask the experts for the science behind the virtues of sport, and which ones have the biggest health-boosting benefits…

Why is sport so universally good for us?

The benefits of sport span three main areas. “Physically – we reduce the risk of heart and lung disease whilst improving our cardiovascular fitness and overall strength,” explains Adam Gaunt, a sports therapist at Hartpury University and member of The Society of Sports Therapists.

“Socially ­– over time, we meet new people and start to develop a sense of belonging. And mentally – sport gives us a stress outlet, our confidence improves and we develop a sense of achievement as we get stronger and develop a wider social circle and community.”

What’s more, playing that fast-paced netball game or squash rally may even change our brains for the better. The University of British Columbia has reported that aerobic exercise such as this appears to boost the size of our hippocampus. This is the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning, helping to sharpen our minds.

How often should we play sport to reap the benefits?

“Looking across the studies on how exercise improves our mental wellbeing, the ‘prescription’ would be to complete 30-35 minutes of aerobic exercise, three to five days per week for at least 12 weeks,” says Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist at Performance in Mind. “It’s a great idea to make sports training one or more of these sessions. We also benefit most when we do it consistently, so find a sport you love.”

Which are the best sports for our health?

Every sport has its benefits so try a variety, suggests Jeremy Snape, a former England cricketer and founder of Sporting Edge, a high-performance sports consultancy. “Choose some activities which test endurance (running, cycling and swimming), some which test hand-to-eye coordination (tennis and cricket) and some which test collaboration, such as football or netball.”

The good news is that finding a local sports team is easier than you think, with sporting communities growing nationwide.

Why are team sports so good for our health?

Combining physical activity with social interaction gives us the biggest gains. This is why taking up a sport may beat that solo workout in the gym.

“A review study found that those who participated in clubs or sports had better vitality and increased feelings of social belonging,” says Adam. “They also reported improved mental health, compared to those who participated in walking or solely gym-based training.”

Experts believe that this is a result of the bonds we form in and out of the game. “We’re social creatures and striving for something with a group of teammates has so much power,” says Jeremy. “Our proudest moments often come from winning as a team and the feeling of celebrating stays with you long after the whistle blows.”

Which sports are best for shaping up?

The Mayo Clinic’s latest survey found that the highest calorie-burning sports include basketball (728 calories/hour), tennis (738 calories/hour), Taekwondo (937 calories/hour) and football (937 calories/hour). “Resistance or weight training (think rowing, surfing or swimming) has been shown to have positive effects on body composition as it helps to increase muscle mass,” says Adam.

Don’t forget the impact of other lifestyle choices, too. “Sleep, nutrition and hydration are equally important for shaping up, so you’ll need to consider the whole energy cycle,” advises Jeremy. “The good news is that making one great choice to exercise generally has a positive impact on the healthy decisions you make for the rest of the day, so it’s a win-win.”

Which sports are best as we age?

Swimming and cycling are great at any age or level,” says Adam. “We nearly always prescribe both to injured athletes, as those physical activities help them offload their muscles and joints while maintaining their cardiovascular fitness. If team sports are more your thing then try walking football or netball, which are becoming increasingly popular.

“As we become older, sports that require high levels of coordination and reaction times such as table tennis and badminton are great for our cognitive health. It’s important to challenge the body in multiple directions under different loads. It’s also vital to complete a full warm-up before playing – this will reduce your injury risk and improve performance.”

As with any new exercise regime or programme, do make sure you consult with your GP.

How can we stay motivated to keep playing?

“Having fun and enjoying your sport makes you much more likely to turn up when you’re tired from work, feeling low or just plain unmotivated,” says Dr Josephine. “Knowing that your team members depend on you can really add to the ‘stickiness’ factor, especially on days when your mental health isn’t great and you would have preferred to sneak home and avoid people.”

Want to really stick at it? Try setting (as well as scoring) some goals. “The NHS Couch to 5K app works well with small incremental improvements to get you towards a goal,” suggests Jeremy. “But the real secret with motivation when you’re feeling flat is to remember how much you’re improving and how you felt last time you exercised or played sport because we rarely regret it once we’ve made the effort.”

Did you know that eligible Vitality members can earn points by playing sport, and as a result earn rewards? You can earn 8 Vitality activity points when you exercise for 30 minutes at 70% maximum heart rate. Visit the Member Zone to find out more.

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