Physical activity the key to improving student mental health

Study: University students taking part in regular physical activity say they perform better, are more employable and enjoy better mental wellbeing

A joint report from ukactive, British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS), Precor and Scottish Student Sport (SSS) – called the ‘British Active Students Survey’ – has found that promoting physical activity, including sports participation and gym membership, improves students’ personal wellbeing, mental wellbeing, social inclusion, and perceived academic attainment and employability.

The survey is the biggest of its kind to date, with 6,891 students from 104 higher education institutes across the UK responding. Just over half of respondents (53%) were meeting the recommended levels of physical activity (150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a week), with 7.1% classified as inactive (taking fewer than 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a week).

A report in April showed younger generations as more lonely than the middle aged, and the survey supported this – with 19% of all students feeling that ‘people barely know me’ and 16% agreeing that ‘people are around me but not with me’. Again, the value of sport and physical activity was clear, with inactive students reporting more feelings of isolation than active students. Almost a third of inactive respondents (31%) indicated that they usually or always feel that people barely know them.

“The findings of this report provide a great opportunity for higher educational institutions to incorporate opportunities and support for all students to lead an active lifestyle for physical, mental, and social wellbeing.”

Over 47% of active students said they never or rarely felt feelings of social isolation. Analysis showed that compared to the inactive group, the odds were lower for them feeling left out.

Active students also perceived higher levels of attainment than fairly active or inactive students, as well as reporting more time spent studying or in class. Similarly, active students rated themselves higher in eight out of 10 employability skills than inactive students – particularly for teamwork and drive. Of the active students, 65% said they were fairly or very confident they would be employed within six months of graduating, compared to 54% of those who were inactive.

The authors have used the findings to call for universities to create more opportunities for physical activity and raise awareness of the wide range of benefits it brings.

“The student population are our future leaders, teachers, and carers,” said Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Chair of ukactive. “Through supporting them to be active we are helping them learn positive habits for a lifetime of healthy behaviour, as well as long-term employability and productivity which is vital for society as a whole.

“The findings of this report provide a great opportunity for higher educational institutions to incorporate opportunities and support for all students to lead an active lifestyle for physical, mental, and social wellbeing.”