Health as a Social Movement - but what does that mean? - RSA

Health as a Social Movement - but what does that mean?

Blog 13 Comments

  • Behaviour change
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Social networks

How can we create a social movement in health? In this 5 minute video, the RSA asked health and community leaders to help explain.

Not exactly sure what people mean by the phrase “Health as a Social Movement”? As part of our work with NHS England, nef and Nesta, the RSA asked health and community leaders to help explain the term and the ideas behind it. This five-minute video is the distillation of several hours of footage from two events hosted by NHS England that brought together health practitioners, patients, and community leaders. The RSA was keen to understand what it would mean to create a social movement in health and why it is an important endeavour. While there is no exact definition, some clear trends – and tensions - emerge.

Within this group, it was taken as given that ‘health’ is more than just treatment as a response to an acute illness, it is also living well to prevent illness or to manage a chronic condition.

We asked the event participants ‘how would you describe the idea of health as a social movement to a friend or family member?’ A common theme that emerges is around empowering people to engage in health-creating or health-maintaining activities outside of (or alongside) the formal health care system. Creating a social movement in health requires energy from within communities to support and respond to their particular needs. Communities may be place-based, tied together by a mutual geographic location, or condition-based, linked through mutual health conditions or interests.

Another trend among the respondents was to highlight how much good practice already exists. Some noted that the formal health care system should support the informal initiatives. But can social movements be engineered? Or must they grow organically? Can and should we create the conditions for social movements to take shape? In some cases, the view was that the way to do this was for the formal health care system to remove the barriers to getting involved with healthy initiatives, and simply get out of the way of what is already working. The logic here is that if existing initiatives can be supported and scaled, there’s potential for them to grow into larger movements beyond the formal healthcare system to promote healthy living for us all.    

Part of the RSA and the other national learning partners’ work will be to explore the questions above about the nature of social movements and how they could play out in relation to health. Nesta will be publishing a primer document which reviews the theory and history of social movements in health and beyond, and highlights some of the some of the opportunities in this area. This is due to be published in September. Nef is working closely with six vanguard models of health and care  around how they create change. And the RSA will be supporting the wider group of vanguards to develop a network to share their learning about how to facilitate healthy living practices.  

Together, the national learning partners are asking how can good practice be adopted and spread? Indeed, one of the tensions that emerged when we asked respondents about how to encourage wide-scale take up of a given behaviour or activity, was around the role of facts and figures versus personal stories. While not explored in this initial short video, we will be thinking about these two different approaches as we try to learn more about how individual-level behaviour change can be scaled up to group-, population-, and system-level change.  

Look out for updates on this project as it progresses. Autumn highlights include a public event hosted at the RSA and the upcoming publication of Nesta’s primer on social movements. In the meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the video and that it helps to introduce the major underlying themes of health as a social movement.  


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  • Last year I wrote an article that relates to "Health as a Social Movement" which can be found at I began as a P.E. teacher and researcher with a degree in science (chemistry) in 1974 and probably started a 'social movement' immediately to integrate health and wellbeing with education. For the last 20 years I've campaigned continually for health to become the priority in our society (even before Sir Michael Marmot?) with this slogan -

     “Societies need to focus on developing and measuring what really matters in life – the 8 skills of healthy, happy successful people.

    The 8 skills are central to our ability to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to our community? They can now be simply and clearly used as assessment of our mental health by asking the following 8 questions:- How well do we –

    Learn and cope with new things? (Effective Learning)

    Concentrate and communicate? (Communication)

    Understand and solve problems? (Cognition)

    Know ourself and what to improve? (Self-awareness)

    Manage our feelings and behaviour? (Self-management)

    Cope with difficulties and setbacks? (Motivation)

    Show respect and empathise with others? (Empathy)

    Relate and cooperate with others? (Relationship/Social)

    THE BIG CHALLENGE is to radicallytransform education & schools for the 21st century, to develop& measure the skills that really matter, that are central to good healthand essential in preventing health and wellbeing problems and not focus on justacademia/exams.

  • As a trustee of a local youth mental health charity I remain to be convinced. No social movement (whatever that is, and I am no clearer from the video) can compensate for the lack of funding for those that are already in this space and struggling to cope with increasing volume and complexity of work that the NHS and government have decided is not their responsibility and by default falls to the voluntary sector, or does not get done at all. I respect the RSA and the desire to stimulate change in health care but I can't help feel this initiative is just another sector talking shop, a king with no clothes.

  • Hi Nathalie

    Your interesting research has huge synergy with the RSA Catalyst project Town Digital Hub, which addresses exactly the same challenge and is now being deployed as a large scale solution by councils and NHS in Birmingham and Somerset.

    Any large scale community based solution, for wellbeing or anything else, needs a sound underpinning methodological approach and (in the 21st century) an appropriate IT platform.

    TDH provides a large scale, community based, non-profit wellbeing solution based on the new but already widely accepted concept of PsyCap (positive psychological capital) plus a powerful cloud platform that lets ordinary people and health professionals review and recommend local resources (public, private and third sector) for addressing Goals related to personal wellbeing Issues then make a shortlist of resources as a personal wellness plan.  More info at

    If you would like a chat, mail me at [email protected].

    Kind regards

  • So this is not my area of expertise, though I watched the video and was left thinking 'what are they all talking about?'.

    I have been interested in my health and fitness for the last 56 years so I have a keen sense of what works for me and I follow that religiously.

    I listened to a program the other day when one of the participants said "We have a food industry that has little regard for health and a health industry that has little regard for food" and for me that said it all.

    Health and food, it seems, is an incredibly taboo subject. I believe we are what we eat. And yet people, including me, robustly defend their current diet and the food industry continues to try to force feed us with what suits them and definitely not what suits us humans and many (I don't) go along with it. And I am told we eat that same stuff when we visit or stay in hospital - I think I would starve if I ever had the misfortune of being an in patient.

    How could we create a social movement based on understanding what is good for us to eat and drink and then being responsible around that?

  • Health and social care charities create social movements within their local communities, often without realisation that this is what they do. A lot can be learned from them. Also I would urge us not to forget death and dying as part of health and sign post towards Ambitions in Palliative and End of Life Care - ambition 6 Each Community is Prepared to Help.

    Would love to be involved in future work and the Autumn event