BLOG: PE and physical activity can change the narrative for mental health

Youth Sport Trust Chief Executive Ali Oliver responds to the Government's release of their recent green paper on young people's mental health.

The Government’s green paper on transforming children and young people’s mental health provision comes at a time when our young people are crying out for support. But is it missing a more obvious contributor? After all, both Future in Mind and the NHS Five Year Forward View on Mental Health, both spoke about the benefits of addressing the physical as well as the emotional wellbeing of young people.

Working with our head teacher ambassadors and over 4,000 member schools we see daily how young people’s mental health is in decline and how desperate schools are to address this because it also impacts upon their performance in the classroom and academic achievement.

Through our work on the ground with young people, at the Youth Sport Trust we see first-hand the transformative impact that physical activity can have on young people’s emotional wellbeing and in the longer  mental wellbeing. Any new policy to improve the mental health of young people we believe would be lacking if it didn’t embrace the role a re-purposed Physical Education curriculum and school sport can play.

Girls’ and boys’ lack of confidence stops them doing school sport

Recent Youth Sport Trust research involving 26,000 young people through our Girls Active programme with Women in Sport and This Girl Can showed us just 16% of boys and 27% of girls aged 11-16-years-old are happy with the way their body looks. It is sad that at such a young age, body image is forefront of girls’ and boys’ minds. What is worse, the research told us that 12% of boys and 28% of girls said their lack of confidence in school was the reason they were not getting active – and so the downward spiral continues.

This shocks me. Children are moving less and their wellbeing as a result is suffering. Research has shown us time again that physical activity boosts mental wellbeing, reduces anxiety and improves mood. But PE, daily physical activity, and school sport, has not yet been taken seriously as a way of getting ‘upstream’ of the issue and repurposed to focus on the development of lifeskills, character traits, social cohesion and active lifestyle habits which will collectively help young people cope better with the challenges of the digital, sedentiary modern age where anxiety levels are high, self esteem is low, isolation is a problem, and for some self control and anger management can be a challenge. 

Physical activity is also a very important contributor to social wellbeing - especially confidence. For both younger children and adolescents, physical activity is associated with positive social behaviour, such as being kind and attempting to resolve disputes with classmates. This is one of the many reasons we champion participation in physical activity. Through the mastery of skills, children can increase their confidence and self-esteem.

In responding to the Government’s consultation, we will be urging policy makers to ensure the power of sport, PE and physical activity is valued, used strategically and repurposed to develop the traits and skills young people need to cope in today’s fast paced, digital world.

A whole school approach

At the Youth Sport Trust we have been working with schools to impress the importance of a strategic whole school approach to PE, physical activity and school sport. This requires schools to ‘take up the corridor’ what is happening in sports halls, PE lessons or on playing fields. Schools adopting a whole school approach and encourage children to be active by default and integrate physical activity into every aspect of school life are leading the way. 

Schools that have this embedded in their culture create early positive experiences for children which helps physical activity become the norm. This approach has been shown to be a strong preventative measure for supporting young people’s emotional well-being. The correlation between engagement in physical activity and sport, and improved emotional well-being is marked, as is the connection between physical activity, school sport and improved academic achievement. 

Supporting healthy and happy young people

For over 20 years we have not only worked alongside governments, but delivered a range of programmes that have delivered positive outcomes for physical and mental health. 

Our Girls Active programme, funded by Sport England, is making huge steps towards better wellbeing in teenage girls. An amazing 55.5% of girls taking part in the programme said their body confidence had improved - stating they were now happy with the way their body looked (Improved from 25.4% before starting the programme). Girls who felt confident when taking part in PE lessons rose from 35.2% to 64%, and girls who felt positive about school rose from 23.5% to 77.8%.

Our Change4Life Sport Clubs programme has seen equally successful results. By delivering the principles and specific skills from Olympic and Paralympic sports by placing them in a fun, vibrant and exciting environment, this gives young people the confidence and competence to take part in lifelong physical activity. From this, we have seen the below results in our schools that have taken part:

  • 99% of participants increased their confidence.
  • 91% of participants increased their sense of belonging.
  • 94% of participants increased their knowledge of healthy lifestyles.
  • 70% of participants supported cross-curricular learning.
  • 94% of participants achieved more than 60 actives minutes per day.

And we are set to launch a pilot programme with our new YST Ambassador Sophie Radcliffe aimed at boosting self-belief among teenage girls. We will be looking to see how the power of the outdoors, the inspiration of a young adventurer and the positive potential of social media can be harnessed to enhance wellbeing and encourage an active lifestyle.

The Government’s green paper is a step in the right direction. For it to deliver the lasting change this and future generations need, we must all work to ensure that our work to improve physical and mental wellbeing go hand-in-hand.

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