Embedding physical activity into the educationalexperience to boost student mental health and wellbeing: Getting moving at University

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Psychology


Today's university students are tomorrow's leaders,decision makers, workers and parents, and will shape theeconomy and society (Dietz et al. 2020). A sense of crisishas developed around the mental health (MH) of thesestudents (Higher Education Policy Institute 2016; Institutefor Public Policy Research 2017). Demand for already-overstretched support services is rising (Institute for PublicPolicy Research 2017). The burden on these reactive,individual services may be alleviated by shifting focus fromindividuals to institutions, and embedding prevention-based initiatives into the education system (PHE 2015). The benefits of regular physical activity (PA) for MH andwellbeing are well known (Dietz et al. 2020). Recentreviews demonstrate that PA interventions improvewellbeing and quality of life in adolescence (Hale et al.2021; Piñeiro-Cossio et al. 2021), and reduce feelings ofdistress and depression (Heinze et al. 2021) in students(Gondoh et al. 2009; Nabkasorn et al. 2005). Crucially, PAnot only benefits those who are struggling but can alsoprevent mental ill-health (Pascoe and Parker 2019; Heinzeet al. 2021) and the benefits of PA are felt even whenconducted at low or mild intensity (Smith, Ekelund, andHamer 2015).Despite the benefits of PA, rates of this activity declinethroughout adolescence (Hale et al. 2021); 80% ofadolescents globally fail to meet guidelinerecommendations of 150mins of PA per week (van Sluijs etal. 2021). The decline may arise partly because adolescentsare no longer exposed to comprehensive, school-based PAprogrammes, as the focus shifts to GCSEs and A-levels, orequivalent (van Sluijs et al. 2021). School-basedprogrammes support PA not only via PE lessons and sports,but also through three forms of classroom-based PA:physically active learning, curriculum-based activity breaks, and non-curriculum breaks (Watson et al. 2017). Despite calls to integrate PA into the curriculum (Kupchella2009; Levitsky et al. 2006), there is little evidence of anysystemic approach to PA promotion in UK universities. Theneed to embed PA into the university education experiencehas grown more acute since the COVID-19 pandemic, asuniversities have embraced blended delivery (i.e. partonline, part in-person), which likely incurs even lowerlevels of instrumental PA (Maguire, Dale, and Pauli 2020).An effective, embedded PA programme must consider thedemands and practices of the post-pandemic university andbe co-designed with stakeholders.This project will develop an approach to embed PA in theuniversity educational experience to increase PA andenhance mental health. We will specifically focus onembedding PA into the educational component of theuniversity experience, because this is common to allinstitutions, - yet often is neglected when considering MHand wellbeing interventions. We will follow a systematicintervention development approach (the 'Behaviour ChangeWheel', Michie, Atkins, and West 2014). First, throughqualitative interviews with stakeholders, we will seek todevelop a systems map to identify how student PA isfacilitated or hindered within the university educationsystem. Secondly, we will run stakeholder workshops toidentify key sites within the system at which PA might beembedded, and co-design intervention strategies. Finally,we will assess the feasibility and acceptability of anintervention embedding PA into this system.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2741374 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2022 29/09/2025 Hannah Clare Wood