The key to good mental health? Physical activity

Finding a physical activity that pupils love – and will take part in for life – could be the most important thing schools do for mental health

Mental health, PE, sport, exercise and mental health, PE and mental health

When talking about the importance of ensuring mental health provision in schools, how often do we look to the PE department for answers? It may come as a surprise, but I believe that PE teachers can hold responsibility not just for physical health, but for mental health too.

There is a growing body of research emerging about the positive impact physical activity has on mental wellbeing. Indeed, we might surmise that finding a sport, exercise or some physical activity that young people will love and take part in for life, might be the singular most important thing a school can do to ensure a young person leads a mentally-well life.

For the last few years, research has hinted at the key role physical activity might have in mental wellbeing. Firstly, physical activity has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, either on its own or combined with other methods. Secondly, there is some evidence that those people who exercise are less likely to get depressed in the first place.

A study published in the Lancet last year showed almost unequivocally, the way in which exercise can support mental health. While the research was done retrospectively, the results were nonetheless very compelling because of the sample size: it involved 1.2 million Americans. Such a vast sample size allowed comparisons of groups matched sex, race, economics, and education  In every group, and for every type of exercise, it was shown that exercise significantly reduced poor mental health.

So why is exercise helpful to mental health?

There’s no simple answer, but it seems that there are multiple pathways by which exercise impacts on mental health:

  • All physical activity releases the endorphins hormone, which is linked to feelings of pleasure, joy, excitement.

  • All physical activity also reduces the stress response of cortisol and adrenaline in the body.

  • Sports and team exercises show a very strong impact on mental wellbeing. Some of the benefits of these may be down the impact of socialising and belonging to something, both of which are linked to positive mental health.

  • Yoga and walking also showed a similar impact, perhaps due to the positive benefits of being mindful.

  • Cycling, gym, and other similar aerobic exercises, although generally more solitary, were also great for mental health: is this the impact of the aerobic function alone? Or do they have a mindful benefit? Or do they improve self-esteem through achieving goals?

There is some suggestion from the research that outdoor exercise has benefits over and above that conducted indoors. We mustn’t forget that in younger children, play can hold an important role in providing physical activity, as well as social connectedness, fun, learning and all those good things for mental wellness.

Future research may show that we have different mental health needs or benefits from exercise. For example, it might be that an extrovert, who gets little social contact in their job, may need a more team-based exercise to get full mental health benefits, whereas I’m sure many teachers may crave the solitude of mindful exercise after a noisy day in the classroom. Mental wellbeing is so often about balance in life.

If mental and physical wellbeing is our goal, we should be focusing on comprehensive, universal, sport-for-all mentality. We wouldn’t accept any child not being able to master literacy and numeracy, and we should expect the same from physical activity too. Not every child is capable of being in a team, but PE teachers – supported by their schools, governors and education authorities – should be working hard to check that no child leaves school without finding some way to move their body that makes them happy, reduces their stress, helps them belong to something bigger than themselves and gets their blood pumping and endorphins released.  

Early specialisation in one sport has its proponents, fuelled by tales of Olympic glory and 10,000 hours of practice. However, it can lead to injury, burn-out and drop-out. Keeping a wide, diverse approach to health and fitness, can allow positive skill transfer, and more importantly, allow children to still have fun and want to continue.

It’s easy to get sucked into the sport-for-the-talented attitude, which still seems to dominate out-of school activities, where I see talented gymnasts, swimmers, rowers, runners, tennis players tied into long hours of clubs, competitions, galas until they reach a tipping point and give it all up. Coaches passionate about their niche sport can inadvertently and relentlessly drive talented children out of the sport with their hope to build a champion.

A sport-for-all mentality is reflected through Sport England’s Active Nation published in 2016, and the government’s Sporting Future strategy, published the previous year – though whether the government is putting its money where its mouth is is a different question.

I’ve seen so many schools incorporate an inclusive approach to include a wide range of sports, exercise and physical activity, that appeal to a broad range of pupils. Mostly, it’s been in primary and special needs schools – I’ve seen far fewer secondaries do it. The sheer range of exercise and fitness opportunities available nowadays in some schools is immense, literally from active maths lessons to Zumba, passing by outdoor gyms, trampolining, street dance, assault courses, kayaking, rock climbing and archery. Yet, there are still core ball skills and team sports included too.  These schools are often creative about including outside agencies and sports clubs to enable sports in schools, and often staff and family fitness were also involved.

A school’s first job is to educate pupils, but academic achievements are worthless without physical and mental health. Getting children to love moving seems the most important single thing schools can prioritise their pupils to ensure good health as well as good qualifications.  

So go on, create some joy in movement.

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist at the Royal Free London NHS Trust and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, as well as Tes' mental health columnist. Views expressed are her own

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