As this term of the Wellbeing Governors campaign aims to demonstrate, the benefits of physical activity extend well beyond physical activity. But there are many ways in which those benefits can be explored, supported or heightened by pupils engaging in other positive habits or pastimes, especially when these can be extended in to their lives outside of school.
Although it’s a common image when we think of physical activity, the rate at which young people take part in organised sport is declining and has been for some time. Whilst many of the health benefits of sport can be found in other forms of physical activity, playing sport can deliver numerous opportunities for personal development – from pro-social behaviours like good teamwork and leadership, to competitive spirit and commitment. Whilst many sports require resources beyond those available to many schools, there are no shortage of sports clubs and societies across England and Wales that are keen to gain new members. They can be a great resource in augmenting a school’s organic extra-curricular offering. It’s worth speaking to your PE lead about opportunities locally as well as more broadly among staff, board members and parents. It is also worth consulting resources such as the Sport and Recreation Alliance and the Youth Sport Trust.
Adventure and service organisations
There are numerous opportunities for young people to get active whilst gaining additional skills and broader life experience. Many of these are low to no cost and available locally in some form – Scouts, Girl Guiding, Combined Cadets (as well as specific Royal Navy, Royal Marine, Army, and RAF variants), Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, are just some examples but there are many more, some that may be specific to your community. In some cases it might be worth incorporating one or more of these, such of the DofE scheme, into your school’s formal extra-curricular provision. However, it would also be very simple for your school to create opportunities for representatives to present to pupils, as well as signpost interested pupils to them.
Lifestyle and habits
There are a variety of positive behaviours and habits that can make a difference to young people, not only to support their capacity for physical activity, as well as motivation, but as part of their overall physical wellness. By ensuring the school is providing consistent messaging to both pupils and parents, with appropriate information and guidance, schools can help ensure the upside of their wellbeing provision is maximised. The following are common areas of concern schools should be exploring with their pupils to ensure they are developing healthy habits that support wellbeing, attainment and personal development.
Insufficient and/or poor quality of sleep have adverse effects on young people – from their ability to think, to how they regulate mood. Poor sleep patterns are even linked to obesity. It diminishes energy levels, decreasing engagement with physical activity, ironically something that contributes to better sleep quality in either a vicious or virtuous circle. Sharing guidance and encouraging pupils to take sleep seriously, alongside providing suitable information and support to parents, either through the curriculum or outside of it, is therefore important to the wellbeing of all pupils.
Schools can, up to a point, control the nutritional value of what is being served to pupils, but that will too often be undermined by their diet outside of school. Whilst we should be realistic about what interventions schools can, and should, attempt, it’s hard to overstate the impact of poor diet on the development of young people and the implications for their future quality of life. The curriculum and food offerings should be supportive of healthy eating, including publishing information and guidance for parents to access, and pupils develop a positive approach to food and their health.
The use of mobile phones is a common cause of poor sleep, but social media and the constant access to it phones enable has been linked to increasing rates of poor mental health among young people, in particular teenage girls. Schools should look to have firm policies on phone and social media use, including bullying, and engage with parents on appropriate use of phones. These include concerns that extend from the risks of grooming, to access to pornography and gambling-based ‘games’, to more subtle issues around dependence, depression, and anxiety that can arise from immoderate use of mobile phones.
Physical activity has been described as a ‘wonder drug’ by a former chief medical officer. It can be just that, especially when placed in an environment and context that looks to both support and make the most of it. Schools, in particular school leadership, are in many ways overburdened already, but by widening the approach and provision of physical activity and wellbeing pupils, staff, and the school more broadly can see improvements in quality of life. The challenges are real but the opportunities and solutions are similarly myriad.
Our thanks to the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre (CHERC) of the University of Exeter, the Youth Sport Trust, The Sleep Council, and Sport England for their contributions to this article.