Using sport and PE to address the mental health and well-being of disadvantaged groups

Using sport and PE to address the mental health and well-being of disadvantaged groups

In this article, our guest columnist, Maurelle D’Sa, Sport and Exercise Psychologist and Co-Founder of GRIT Sport & Exercise Psychology Consultancy talks about the psycho-social challenges faced by women living in urban slums and highlights the role of organized sport and physical activity in helping these women overcome their challenges. 

Nanda, a 24-year-old immigrant, moved to Mumbai along with her husband, in-laws and two children in search of a better life and work opportunities. However, on arrival they found that the conditions they had to live in were far from favorable. Nanda and her family did not have a steady roof over their head; the family income was irregular considering her husband was a daily wage earner, and they lived in a locality with poor sanitation and irregular water supply. She juggled between house chores, caring for her aged in-laws and her two children. As a result, she was dependent on her husband to provide for her. She was determined to educate her children so they could have better opportunities and a chance to a better life. This was reason enough for her to stay back in the city.

Over time, her husband fell prey to alcoholism and she was left to bear the brunt of his anger when he was under the influence of alcohol. With the situation going from bad to worse after her husband lost his job, she was forced to take on the role of the breadwinner, and began weaving baskets all day. Nanda was exposed to extreme poverty, and was barely able to make ends meet.

The poor living conditions, the inability to sufficiently provide for her family, and constantly being exposed to domestic violence, her situation was far from what she had expected from this city. Instead, she stumbled upon a life plagued with worry, fear and insecurity! What can Nanda do to improve the quality of her life?

Nanda represents the millions of female urban slum dwellers, who move to larger cities, only to be met with disappointment and added health concerns . They live in areas that are prone to infectious diseases and illnesses; they suffer from poor physical health and poor nutrition, live in poverty and unsafe environments, and are victims of physical, sexual and verbal abuse. All of these experiences have a negative impact on their mental health. Moreover, it has been established that mental health concerns like anxiety and depression are greater in women as compared to men, and the plight of these urban slum dwellers only contributes towards deteriorating their mental health further.

What can these women do to bolster themselves and cope with these challenges?Can they work on improving their mental wellbeing?

Yes, they can, and the answer lies in physical activity and sport! Physical activity and sport can provide a bolster against such challenges and also improve the mental wellbeing of these women.

Physical activity and sport kicks up the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals that improve mood ; it brings about a change in the brain structure; and increases blood flow. As a result, we experience reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms, and increased energy. Not to mention, physical activity also improves the quality of sleep.

Even a few minutes of playing a sport or being physically active can have a positive impact on mood, which can last a few hours, and if these women engage in sport and physical activity regularly, the effects can be long term.

These effects can be seen with different kinds of sports and activities. Activities that are aerobic in nature, i.e., activities that increase our heart rate and breathing in a way that lets us continue the activity for long periods, as well as anaerobic activities, i.e., activities that cause us to quickly get out of breath, can reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety, and in most cases are as effective as other treatment methods, without the side effects! Aerobic activities would include brisk walks, cycling, running or skipping, and anaerobic activities would include sprinting, lifting weights and other muscle-strengthening activities.

Engaging in physical or sporting activities a few times per week, leads to growth of new brain cells that can keep these women alert and sharp, as well as protect them against degenerative diseases like dementia.

The experiences these women go through due to poverty and domestic violence can cause them to develop anger and other unhealthy emotions, phobias, confusion, and more often than not, even lead to alcoholism and substance abuse. Regular engagement with organized sport and physical activity can lead to small achievements and successes that will eventually contribute towards developing confidence, self-image and self-esteem in these women.  It provides a healthy outlet for emotional expression of pent-up emotions and improves the body’s ability to respond to stress by reversing its impact on us. This can help women cope with life’s challenges.

When women indulge in a physical activity or sport, they learn that their problems and challenges are separate from them and therefore they learn to deal with setbacks and failures without letting their self-esteem and confidence drop. This boost in confidence enables them to overcome feelings of inferiority, and they are able to make better decisions as well.

Through experiences with organized sport, these women have an opportunity to develop psychosocial skills like leadership, communication, cooperation and goal setting that are transferable to contexts beyond sport. It allows them to explore skills and strengths that they do not know they possess, and this puts them at an advantage to find suitable jobs. It can teach these women assertiveness and self-control, thereby increasing their overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Unfortunately, the widespread belief is that women in urban slums are sufficiently physically active with household chores and caregiving activities. However, this is far from true . Many of these women are not even aware of the tremendous physical and psychological benefits sport and physical activity have to offer. Therefore, despite this issue gaining little attention from policymakers or the general public, engaging in adequate amount of physical activity should not be considered a luxury but rather a necessity for women like Nanda, in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of diseases as well as to promote better psychological health and wellbeing, and psychosocial skills.

Although an approximate of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity is recommended for adults, to begin with, even a little bit is better than nothing!