Mental Health and the importance of PE, Sport and Physical Activity in schools

Growing and powerful evidence of the positive link between physical activity and improved mental health is building awareness of the need to provide children and young people with ample opportunities for sport and exercise. The importance of providing a broad curriculum in schools which includes sport, outdoor play and physical activity is clear.

A rich and exciting physical education is essential for children and teenagers, not only for those most vulnerable to suffering from mental health problems, but for all young people.
Through PE, children express themselves physically, challenge themselves and others, cooperate, compete and take risks. Physical Education helps to develop resilience, empathy, confidence and social skills – all vital for good mental health.

Activity also releases energy, enabling young people to ‘let off steam’ which helps to lower anxiety levels. The sense of the achievement that is often experienced by students can also make a significant contribution to positive mental health. Sport and physical activity affect the chemistry of the brain, improving mood both in the short and longer term. A positive PE experience at school can have a lasting impact on the mental health of young people for the rest of their lives.

However, evidence from the Sports and Physical Education Association (SPE) shows that at secondary school level, physical education is being squeezed out of the curriculum and increasingly, sport is not at the heart of secondary school life.

Primary and Secondary PE Provision

A recent survey* commissioned by SPE suggests that, while primary schools’ PE provision has been relatively well-funded thanks to the soft drinks levy or ‘sugar tax’, the same level of funding has not been available to secondary schools.

A number of Heads of Department in secondary schools responded to the survey; the sentiments expressed here were echoed by many others and suggest that secondary schools’ PE provision is in crisis:

“PE is becoming less of a priority and something that I feel is impacting upon young people’s mental health, especially as the pressure of GCSE and examination subjects increases. As a school we do well with what we have. but a significant shift in the last five years is having an detrimental effect on student health and fitness especially at KS4. I feel education in general is being stretched and that staff goodwill is more and more relied upon to fill the gaps that are being left. This is unsustainable and will force staff to push back against the constant increased demand placed upon them.”

“PE is being squeezed and with really poor facilities we are struggling to make the subject appealing to young people. We face a crisis in terms of involvement for the ‘mobile phone generation’.”

“PE has declined in importance in terms of fitness and is not a whole school priority anymore.”

*Based on survey responses from 161 primary and 154 secondary schools, Oct 2019

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