In today’s society we are becoming ever more aware of the pressures of life and the impact that these stresses can have on our health. Work, the economy and family life can all take their toll on our mental and physical wellbeing. In a busy higher education environment we are increasingly aware of the impact of these issues, which is why the University of Aberdeen’s Sport and Exercise Team set out to boost the wellbeing of its students and staff by offering additional ‘non-competitive’ exercise opportunities.
In 2014 the University of Aberdeen recognised that two big things were about to happen in Scotland; Glasgow 2014’s Commonwealth Games (GCG 2014), and the opening of a new addition to their facilities, Aberdeen Aquatics Centre. These two major events provided an ideal platform on which to base the University’s new physical activity promotion. The University’s main aim was to offer another level of sport to encourage as many people as possible to make the most of their state-of-the-art facilities.
With the anticipation of the new Aquatics Centre opening, the University of Aberdeen decided to offer free swimming lessons to all students and staff. Aware that there are a large number of people within the university community who could not swim, the free swimming lessons – aimed at beginners – were an excellent way to help reinforce that the new facility was not just for elite users, but for anyone interested in swimming or water sports at any level.
It is well known that regular swimming has obvious health benefits, is a lifelong skill that could save a life and is never too late to learn. Memorably, those who took part were some of the very first to use the new swimming pool before it was opened fully to the public.
Linking the Commonwealth Games
Using GCG 2014 as a catalyst for the programme, the University of Aberdeen chose to promote Commonwealth sports, and applied to use the Commonwealth Legacy branding as a way of inspiring people to take part. The University targeted a wide variety of students and staff with a friendly ‘come and try’ message, giving the opportunity for people to come and learn new skills in a non-competitive environment. Bookings were made from several departments, including academic and non-academic staff, first-year students, mature students, as well as overseas and ERASMUS students. It was very important to the University from the outset to try and deliver a programme that would benefit the people who were not already taking part in physical activity. Using the well-known and respected Commonwealth branding for our marketing, the lessons successfully celebrated the inclusive nature of swimming as a sport, reaching out to the wider student community.
Developing the programme
From the day bookings went live the demand was extremely high. In order to cope with the high level of interest, the University furthered the project by offering additional free sports. We continued with the Commonwealth sports theme by adding coached swim technique sessions for those who could already swim, as well as coached netball and table tennis sessions. The University wanted to continue to encourage those who were not already involved in traditional activities and sports teams, so having coached sessions on offer really helped people’s confidence. Many people who had never tried the sports, or had not played in several years came along and were able to develop their skills and enjoy the games.
Promoting exercise within the university
It is evidenced that being involved in sport whilst studying at university has many benefits. Being active can reduce anxiety, enhance wellbeing by 30%, improve mood, improve sleep and reduce stress levels. These benefits will also have an impact on a person’s overall ability to cope with academic life, with attendance and concentration levels being higher. They will of course feel physically healthier, having an improved immune system and better cardio-respiratory fitness. People who are active can also go on to have better employability prospects with a 4–5% improved work performance, increased productivity, and 7–8% higher earnings. This could be linked to the skills and values which sport can teach, some of which include teamwork, problem solving, communication, self-discipline, integrity/respect, initiative, leadership, and responsibility.*
2016 will see a new strategic plan for the University of Aberdeen. The University wants to ensure that people’s wellbeing remains high on the agenda. The strategic plan has three main themes: people, teaching and learning, and research. Under the people section key elements will be student experience and student and staff wellbeing. To further enhance the University’s caring culture the aim is to continue to develop similar programmes.
ABOVE: Aberdeen recently winning the Excellence in Student Sport Experience category at the CUBO Awards 2015
Things that the University of Aberdeen felt made this programme a success included establishing a target audience, thinking about how to reach this audience, ease of registration, variety of days/times and considering term dates to ensure maximum participation. Providing qualified coaches and ensuring participant to coach ratios were kept low (ratios = 8/10 participants–1 coach) was also extremely important for the impact of the sessions. We found that early morning sessions were great for swimming lessons, but not for netball. Table tennis was played in sociable afternoon sessions.
The University of Aberdeen used their Commonwealth sports programme to add another layer to sport opportunities available. Aberdeen is fortunate to have world-class facilities and 58 sports teams but there are still hard-to-reach people within the University establishment who need to be catered for. Offering free swimming lessons proved to be a great way to do this. Being involved or seeing the posters and reading about the success of the programme has made people think about different ways to become or remain active, learning new skills which they will take with them for life. The project has been recognised nationally at the Game Changer Awards and recently winning the Excellence in Student Sport Experience category at the CUBO Awards 2015.
For more information about the CUBO Awards go to www.cubo.org.uk