Beyond sport: the link between exercise and wellbeing

Cathy Parnham looks at the vital role sport plays in boosting pupils’ mental wellbeing

The impact of lockdown

Children’s charity Youth Sport Trust surveyed 1,396 young people aged 6–15 between 5–11 June during National School Sport Week at Home on their feelings about coming out of lockdown.

Physical education, sport and exercise had helped 27% of young people feel better during lockdown. But 40% said that not being able to take part in sport during lockdown was something that had made them feel worse.

37% of young people say that they now consider physical education, sport and exercise to be more important to them than they did before lockdown.

51% of young people – about 4 million – say they will now do more sport and exercise than they did before the lockdown.


Lockdown has brought into sharp focus the importance sport has on mental health and wellbeing. Youth Sport Trust’s research reveals that 27% of young people felt better during this period when engaging in sport. According to mental health charity Mind, exercise can positively impact wellbeing in a number of ways including sleeping better, feeling happier and feeling connected via group or team activities.

Neil Harris, CEO of Sport in Mind, explains: “Engaging in sport is one the most effective ways to promote mental wellbeing, as when we exercise, our body releases endorphins that make us feel happier. Sport can help children lift their mood; reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression; combat isolation; help boost confidence levels and self-esteem; and improve concentration levels.”

But as well as the physical effects that sports can induce, the social benefits cannot be underestimated.

Research by Ann Hagell suggests the latter carries more importance, citing: “Team sports seem to have particular associations with positive benefits for young people, and it has been suggested that there is something about the social nature of the participation that carries the benefit, over and above physiological consequences.”

Being part of a team – whether a traditional sport such as football or as a representative of your school in a competition – gives you that sense of belonging, of being part of a community. In the words of Paul Mullan, deputy head co-curricular, and Zia Leech, senior mistress (pastoral), of Bromsgrove School: “Sport brings the school community together and promotes social cohesion across our diverse student body.”

Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, echoes this sentiment, saying: “Sport has such power to bring people together and to improve lives, even through the most difficult of times.”

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Millfield’s new indoor golf centre

Lockdown lows

As we are discovering the impact that lockdown has had on children’s mental health, it is apparent that exercise through play or an activity, team game or individual pursuit is vitally important – and the lack of it has had repercussions.

Harris says: “In the consultations we have had with children during lockdown, levels of stress and loneliness have increased dramatically due to the enforced changes to their normal routines. Sport has long been seen by many children as a positive outlet to meet with their peers in a fun, relaxed environment; however, due to Covid-19, their usual physical activity opportunities have reduced significantly.”

This is echoed by Millfield’s director of sport, Dr Scott Drawer, who comments: “For anyone who has a passion for sport, not being able to engage in your normal routines and activities is tough.”

And, while some students “responded hugely positively to the opportunity and used the time to focus deeply on learning new skills in their home environment, for others, it was difficult to manage”.

One of the specific challenges lockdown imposed was the lack of “having a human emotional connection or their peer group and coaches”, explains Drawer, which “led to demotivation, frustration, anger and many other challenging emotions”.

Mullan and Leech add: “Pupils have missed the camaraderie and adrenalin rush that sport provides, with some also feeling a disconnection from a typically healthy lifestyle and their usual support networks.”


About Sport in Mind

Sport in Mind is an award-winning charity that uses sport to improve the lives of people experiencing mental health problems and to deliver educational workshops to young people. In 2019, Queen Anne’s School in Reading won the ‘Educational Change’ award for the most impactful project in education at the Roundtable Global Youth Award for their work with Sport in Mind. For more information, visit www.sportinmind.org


Creating different communities

One of the challenges that Covid-19 wrought on schools the world over was rethinking the traditional sporting ‘community’ that is so vital to our pupils’ wellbeing. Luckily, technology has been on hand to help schools recreate digital spaces for students to engage with.

Millfield, for example, used MS Teams to deliver a programme of sport, including “fitness, conditioning and yoga/pilates; technical skills and drills; individual competitions and skill tests; virtual competitions against other skills; and our own in-house Strava competition to see who ran, rode and climbed the furthest every week”, says Drawer.

“Some of the highlights were seeing how students would step up and lead sessions, and how much coaches and students learned from studying their sport in different ways. We will certainly take some of those learnings back into normality to expand the variety in each of our programmes.”

At Bromsgrove School, Zoom played a pivotal role. Mullan and Leech explain: “We continued to deliver PE lessons via Zoom and provided weekly newsletters to highlight different ways of engaging with sport – taking into account confined exercise space and limited access to equipment.

“Fitness and conditioning videos were produced for all age groups and family participation was encouraged. Pupils sent in videos of their progress which provided important feedback in adapting lessons.”

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A Millfield pupil taking part in a remote rugby fitness session

Safety measures

As pupils return to school, engaging in sport, safely, is of paramount importance and some pupils will naturally be nervous of participating in team activities and have concerns over social distancing.

Drawer comments: “We have our internal lists of requirements from every national governing body that we are following, in addition to all the advice and requirements from government.

“It is complex, at times, because the guidance can be different, but we are erring on the side of caution while everyone gets into new routines and focusing on getting the distancing, hygiene and cleaning as good as it can be.”

Adapting to change

To adapt to the enforced change Covid-19 has brought, Mullan and Leech of Bromsgrove School say: “We are looking to run a full programme of sport, following NGB guidelines and placing a greater emphasis on physical movement and skills within the PE programme. 

“This will maintain the foundational building blocks of health and function, including advice on nutrition, sleep, self-care and doing things that make you feel good.”

While at Millfield, Drawer says: “We have had to make some modifications around numbers in spaces, the format of the sport and the development of internal competitions to offset the lack of external fixtures but we are confident we can provide an engaging, enjoyable and challenging development experience for any student regardless of ability and aspiration.”

To continue to meet the needs of pupils, schools have been rethinking the typical sporting calendar. Bromsgrove School, for example, will be “delivering some of the traditional summer sports during the Michaelmas term” and “looking to introduce new opportunities” for its pupils. And while “there will be no school fixtures for the first half-term”, Bromsgrove School has organised “a variety of internal and inclusive house competitions every Saturday afternoon”.

Millfield has also taken a creative approach to engage its students in sport. Drawer tells us: “We will continue to motivate through games and competitions within their sport that meet the safety guidelines in times of Covid-19.

The guidelines in sport have really moved since the time of lockdown and, in some cases, we are not far off being normal with exception to national events and tournaments.”

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Bromsgrove School say pupils have missed “the camaraderie and adrenalin rush that sport provides”

Feeling connected

As schools start to deliver their sporting programmes, operating within the restrictions and guidelines set, having emotional connection through sport gives pupils that much-needed sense of belonging to a community, which is vital for good mental wellbeing.

As Drawer says: “You can’t underestimate the value of social engagement through sport, and having students back – albeit operating under various guidelines to stay safe – the social connection is fundamental to staying well.”

Oliver notes: “Young people have told us that they missed their friends and worried about how they will be able to see them. Being active is one of the things that has helped them during lockdown and, perhaps as a result, many now see this as being more important and want to do more of it.”

And the research by the Youth Sport Trust is compelling: 37% of young people now consider physical education, sport and exercise to be more important to them than they did before lockdown; and 51% will now do more sport and exercise than they did before.

This is borne out by Sport in Mind. Harris tells us: “Post-lockdown, many children have now begun to realise that sport plays a key role in helping them de-stress and manage their mental health – it is not just something fun to do with their peers.

“Even those children who would not necessarily class themselves as being ‘into sport’ have highlighted that the current limited opportunities to exercise with others has impacted on their mental health and they are struggling to find ways to de-stress.”

So, moving forward to a ‘new normal’ as children re-engage with their school peers, “it will be vital that schools, families and sports clubs have the support and guidance they need to ensure all young people benefit from the positive impact that good-quality physical education and school sport brings to their wellbeing”, says Oliver.


About the Well Schools movement

New initiative Well Schools launched on 22 September with the aim of celebrating wider educational outcomes alongside exam results. Headteachers and teachers from across the UK have come together to create a movement for change across all schools and help them improve the wellbeing and achievement of every child. It was set up by Youth Sport Trust and Bupa Foundation in response to research which revealed parents’ appetite for schools to focus on young people’s physical, social and emotional wellbeing above all else. For more information, visit www.youthsporttrust.org/wellschool


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