Poor mental health is a major cause of disease burden and is consistently associated with deprivation, low income, unemployment, poor education, poorer physical health and increased health-risk behaviour. Furthermore, early mental health problems in adolescence can have a lasting effect resulting in poor educational achievement, chronic economic inactivity, lower earnings, marital problems, teenage parenthood and contact with the criminal justice system. Physical activity has been dubbed a “magic bullet” in preventing disease burden, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental ill health. Increasing mental wellbeing is associated with greater health and longevity, income, productivity and organisational behaviour and a range of psychosocial benefits (including sociability, altruism, reduced risk taking and greater future time perspective).
In this study, I explored the impact of a community-wide intervention called “Beat the Street” on levels of mental wellbeing. Beat the Street turns a local area into a game and residents earn points as they walk, cycle, run or scoot around their community. Residents compete to see which schools, community groups and individuals can achieve the greatest physical activity over the course of the game period and highest scorers are rewarded with prizes. The results showed a statistically significant increase in mental wellbeing following the intervention, which was significantly greater for participants who were completely inactive before the game began.
These findings may be explained by the social nature of the intervention. First, the intervention operates at a community-wide level and is branded to the local area, in this instance, Stranraer, which may have functioned to connect people to their town. Second, the game relies on the competitive nature of teams (whether school or community group based) which could have functioned to strengthen existing social networks or enable individuals without connection to an existing social group to become a part of one (for instance, their child’s school, their workplace or a local charity). Finally, the intervention offered 20 local points of common interest, the ‘Beat Boxes’, and a common topic of conversation, the ‘game’. With 3371 people (38% of the population within the game boundary) recording 285,380 scans on just 20 Beat Boxes, it is highly likely that paths would have crossed on numerous occasions with familiar and unfamiliar neighbours and the game itself would have offered a convenient topic of discussion, such as what team people are a part of, how many points they have acquired and how many miles they have travelled.
Marc Harris, BSc, MRes, Senior Research Associate and PhD candidate at Cardiff Metropolitan University and Evidence and Research Lead at Intelligent Health.
Twitter – @mharrisresearch
Marc Ashley Harris
First published January 16, 2018