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Loneliness is a really tricky thing to tackle, but joining part of a sporting community – even as an armchair fan – has been linked with improved mental health, a new study has found.

If you’ve been following the Lionesses through the Euros, you’ve probably felt a swell of pride as they’ve snuck in a late equaliser or delivered an eight-goal extravaganza. And if you’ve watched the games with friends or family, cheering alongside the rest of the nation, it might be doing your mental health a world of good.

According to a new study, half of sports fans find that supporting their favourite team boosts their mental health, with a third saying that supporting a team makes them feel like part of a community.

Better, the charitable social enterprise, asked 2,000 fans what benefits watching their favourite sport offered up. And while the results might not be surprising to anyone who’s into sports already, they are reassuring. 33% said watching things like the Commonwealth Games and Euros on TV inspires them to be more active – which, given the fact that half of British women haven’t exercised in the past year, is a massive benefit. 

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The community aspect of watching sports isn’t to be overlooked either; according to the Campaign to end Loneliness, 45% of UK adults feel lonely occasionally or often. Long-term loneliness has the same health implications as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can increase your risk of death by 26%.

You might be wondering how watching a football game is going to change feeling isolated if you’re watching it at home. After all, if you’re not already part of a sporting community or you don’t have mates who are into the same sport as you, it doesn’t necessarily sound like the best way to boost your social connections.

But sticking on your England shirt to shout at the TV, tweeting about your favourite netball team’s progress or following Lewis Hamilton around the Formula One circuit does connect you to the thousands of other fans doing exactly the same thing. You don’t have to attend an event to feel that sense of community; you can feel as much part of the action from your sofa, snapping away and chatting on Instagram as Beth Mead sinks another goal, as you can sitting in the stadium.

“When we get really involved in sport (competing ourselves, coaching, taking children along to competitions or joining supporters groups), our identity starts to shape itself around that sport,” explains Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist at Performance in Mind. “This means we tend to think with this sporting identity and it can infiltrate the way we make decisions and live our lives.”

While it’s unlikely that we’re going to reap life-changing benefits from just watching sports, doing so can inspire us to move more ourselves, which in turn “can give us the motivation we need to stay fit and healthy”.

You don’t have to be physically at a game or match to be part of the community; watching it from home and chatting to your mates or other people on social media about it is enough to make you feel connected.

Dr Perry goes on to say that sport and exercise are “brilliant for physical, mental and cognitive health. If it was a pill it would make billions.” And that’s because they offer us structure, purpose, energy and motivation.

“It is also effective at altering the way we process and respond to our emotions, reduces how much we overthink and builds up an emotional resilience to stress. This helps to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, makes us behave differently, boosts our self-esteem and means we reduce any feelings of loneliness by becoming more social.”

Images: Getty

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