Healthy body, positive mind

Regular physical activity and robust mental health go hand in hand, writes Simon Fry

While physical exertion, bringing physical health, is of innate benefit to children (and adults alike) independent schools also consider it vital to maintaining their pupils’ mental health.

An interesting split exists between school leaders making competitive sport compulsory and those offering non-competitive alternatives. Irrespective of establishing winners and losers, diverse options – including canine company – mean all can find their favourite.

Clifton College boys playing rugby against Millfield

Competition is key

“For our pupils to be considered healthy they must have mental, social and physical wellbeing,” said Clifton College director of sport, Andrew Wagstaff.

He continued: “Sport and games at Clifton College allow them to be physically active for a minimum of five hours weekly, with participation compulsory.

“Sport can be seen to install and provide opportunities for our pupils to achieve the school’s values; at Clifton we aim to produce pupils that are ‘the best possible versions of themselves’.”

There’s an extra edge to exercise at Clifton. “It is compulsory for pupils to participate in a competitive sport in one of the three terms to help develop these core values; pupils just committed to a ‘sporting activity’ will miss out on these attributes, which are fundamental to team sports. Sailing, running for fitness and fencing are examples of sports and activities where pupils with stress problems have been allowed to overcome their anxiety and become involved in regular participation and gained values of being part of a group or team.”

Encouraging pupils to be more active can be difficult and no physical activity is a one-size-fits-all

Leweston provides a programme of sport and outdoor learning

Nature nurtures

Leweston School provides a programme of sport and outdoor learning accessible to all, supporting and enhancing pupils’ personal development and academic achievements.

Director of sport Sara Guy said: “In an age of growing concern about mental wellbeing, particularly in children, and incidents of teenage depression, anxiety and stress rising, sport and exercise can provide an effective drug-free treatment with multiple studies concluding that regular aerobic exercise can reduce the symptoms of clinical depression.

“Whilst some children thrive on competition, finding this a release from personal and academic pressure, others benefit from non-competitive recreational activities.”

The school also provides health and wellbeing elements in its lunchtime and after-school activities programme, including spin class, cycling, tree-climbing, Zumba, yoga, KundaDance and sailing.

The school has 46 acres of grounds; pupils are encouraged to go outdoors and as many activities as possible are offered outside. Walking is encouraged and the numerous dogs on-site are available for exercising, bringing stress-busting benefits.

Leweston has a history of excellence in running and are current U13 National Prep School Cross-Country Champions. Visual enrichment is popular.

“Running has a particularly strong mental health impact and, combined with the sight of trees and nature, can have a restorative effect on participants. Cross-country runs are available most lunchtimes with staff taking out small groups on request. The Friday run typically numbers up to 45 staff and pupils, almost 25% of the school’s population.”

The school’s PSHE programme also highlights the value of physical activity to pupils, particularly approaching exam time. Students are encouraged to find a healthy balance between academic study and physical recreational activity.

As a result of this encouragement, “A significant number of pupils choose to participate in recreational sport who would not normally be confident, willing or able to perform competitively, and some proceed into teams they would never have expected to join, increasing their confidence and self-worth.”

Netball at Rydal Penrhos

Sport, sleep and stress

Physical activity triggering brain chemicals, making you happier and more relaxed, is a step toward strong mental health, according to Rydal Penrhos School head of physical education, Nicky Head. “Participating in this kind of activity three to five times weekly for at least 30 minutes can provide these mental health benefits. When you are physically active, your mind is distracted from daily stressors. This can help you avoid getting bogged down by negative thoughts. Exercise reduces your body’s levels of stress hormones while stimulating endorphin production.

“Sports and other physical activities improve sleep quality by helping you fall asleep faster and deepening sleep. Sleeping better can improve your mental outlook the next day and improve mood.”

Rydal Penrhos School holds regular talented athlete seminars focusing on various performance areas, the mental health and wellbeing element of this having increased considerably in recent years, giving pupils a broader perspective on how to stay positive both individually and motivating others to do the same.

Rydal Penrhos also has a school counsellor for anyone wishing to discuss a specific problem, and holds wellbeing form sessions and meditation assemblies, further promoting positive mental health.

Head believes team sports in particular provide a chance to unwind and engage in a satisfying challenge improving children’s fitness. The end results are uplifting for all.

“They also provide social benefits by allowing you to connect with teammates and friends in a recreational setting to boost friendship foundations, engage in conversation and have fun away from the classroom’s stresses. It is always heart-warming to see someone who has been struggling coming of age thanks to fortitude and a will to succeed.

“This, together with exceptional support from staff and peers, can make a real difference and it is paramount this subject continues to be at the forefront of educators’ thoughts, especially when considering the increasing stresses on young children.”

At King Edward’s Witley, importance is placed on both developing house teams and recreational sport

Meeting their potential

Phil Miller, director of sport at King Edward’s Witley, quotes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when considering mental health. “Maslow states people must satisfy varying levels of ‘needs’ if they are to achieve a positive level of mental wellbeing.

“To be truly satisfied we must be able to achieve the pinnacle of this pyramid of needs, where ‘self-actualisation’ lies.

“Reaching your potential and having positive mental wellbeing relies on fulfilment of numerous needs. At King Edward’s Witley, we pride ourselves on our pastoral care, thus providing all of our pupils with the ‘basic needs’ forming the springboard to reaching potential.”

Sport supports the progress of pupils to ‘self-actualisation’ or, reaching their potential, as successes in the classroom and on the sports field are recognised and rewarded, feeding ‘esteem needs’.

“Sport is a powerful tool in a school’s arsenal,” said Miller. “Building on the positive foundations the pastoral aspect of boarding school life provides, for day and boarding pupils. As director of sport, there are several things my team and I do to ensure pupils achieve a sense of positive wellbeing.”

The school’s sporting programme is carefully planned to ensure everyone has an opportunity to achieve positive self-esteem. Equal importance is placed on developing house teams, recreational sport, supporting individual sporting talents and advancing first XI sides. The school recognises the joy derived from achieving success and joining in the triumphs of others’ sporting achievements, celebrating and congratulating success, whether it is a first XI hockey victory or a beginner tennis player hitting a textbook forehand.

“We all know from England’s recent Cricket World Cup win how the achievements of others generates a feel-good factor. We actively promote being the best we can be and being happy with who we are, thus allowing our pupils to fulfil their potential and ultimately experience positive mental wellbeing.”

Running has a particularly strong mental health impact and, combined with the sight of trees and nature, can have a restorative effect on participants

Tennis at King Edward’s Witley

Broad curriculum

The discussion around the positive impact of physical activity on pupils’ mental health is a hot topic as it becomes more evident it can increase self-esteem and reduce depression and anxiety in young people. Endorphins released during exercise help children to process things better, aiding productivity and concentration levels, which can help them increase academic success.

However, Joanna Hackett, Loughborough Schools Foundation’s director of sport, sounds a note of caution. “Encouraging pupils to be more active can be difficult and no physical activity is a one-size-fits-all, therefore it is a PE teacher’s goal to discover which sport suits each pupil.

“A broad curriculum including activities like Zumba and spinning engages a different group of students and encourage them to try less conventional activities.”

Hackett believes encouraging pupils’ enthusiasm towards sport is key to inspiring them to approach physical activity in a way making them feel more comfortable. “In previous schools I have taught at, a common trope has been the difficulty in engaging teenage girls in physical activity. At this stage in their development some can be self-conscious and insecure, so the teacher must overcome this. In one school’s case we blacked-out the gym and attached glow sticks to our clothes and equipment and had a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ dodge ball game. Students immersed themselves in the activity without being concerned about their appearance.”

At the foundation, sport is also beneficial in teaching children how to overcome and manage certain mental health issues. “By focusing on resilience tactics, teamwork and channelling confidence in a pupil’s capabilities, you can educate pupils on how to deal with issues like self-esteem and adaptability to setbacks.”

From athletics to Zumba and all points in-between, whether competitive or non-competitive, team-based or individual, outside with dogs or indoors in darkness, independent school leaders agree physical activity boosts the mind as much as the body.

You might also like: Mental health – the effects of sport and boarding life

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