Student wellbeing has been a hot topic in the higher education sector for a while now, and for good reason. Earlier this year a poll of almost 38,000 UK students found that rates of psychological distress and illness are increasing at universities, with ‘alarmingly high’ levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm reported. Researchers said the findings constituted ‘an urgent call to action’.

We all know that improving student wellbeing is a complex and multifaceted topic that requires a range of measures. From fostering effective partnerships with relevant services to making sure there are enough mental health staff on campus, there are plenty of actions universities can take to ensure student wellbeing is prioritised.

One often overlooked yet potentially very impactful topic to be explored is physical exercise. In order to learn more about how universities can make the most of exercise for student wellbeing, we interviewed the following experts:

Over these 3 pages, you’ll find their excellent insight into the wellbeing benefits of activity, along with some practical steps on how universities can better utilise this often-ignored tool.

A young woman weightlifts

The role exercise plays in wellbeing

University students who partake in regular physical activity say they perform better, are more employable and have better levels of wellbeing, according to the biggest study of its kind featuring responses from 6,891 students from 104 Higher Education Institutes across the UK.

Respondents who were classified as active scored better than those classified as fairly active or inactive across four aspects of personal wellbeing: life satisfaction, feelings of worthwhile, happiness and anxiety.

Yet despite this link, just over half of respondents met the recommended levels of physical activity (150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity a week). And 7.1% of respondents were classified as inactive, taking fewer than 30 minutes of exercise a week.

To dive deeper into this topic, we asked our experts to share with us some of the specific ways that exercise benefits our wellbeing.

Women run in the dark
  • Increases endorphins

We all know on some level that exercise makes us feel good – but why?

When we exercise, our bodies release chemicals called endorphins that help relieve pain, reduce emotional stress, and create a sense of happiness. There is plenty of research to prove that endorphin level is a factor in determining our overall wellbeing

Vicki Anstey, founder of Barreworks, a workout studio in Richmond

Sarah Russell, an exercise clinician for the NHS and author of The Bowel Cancer Recovery Toolkit, added: “On a physical level, chemical changes occur in the brain when we exercise which improves our mood and reduces feelings of anxiety. And when your body feels stronger and fitter, you intrinsically feel better about yourself.”

  • Reduces cortisol

But exercise doesn’t only increase the good stuff in our bodies. “Endorphins are not the only chemical to be released by the body during exercise. Cortisol, which is responsible for our bodies’ stress levels is greatly reduced through activity. Mental illness, life expectancy and resilience can all be improved by lowering cortisol levels. Aside from this, the simple act of breaking away from the task in hand, to distract yourself through exercise brings a sense of perspective back to the situation every time,” says Vicki.

Girls exercising high-five each other
  • Reduces stress, anxiety and mild depression

There is plenty of evidence linking exercise to better mental health outcomes. “Of course exercise can make us feel good and can give us a buzz, but it has a much bigger part to play in our mental wellbeing if we look a little deeper. It can help reduce stress, anxiety and mild depression,” says Sarah.

  • Improves sleep quality

Getting enough sleep is a critical step in maintaining good overall wellbeing. Research has found that sleep problems may increase the risk of developing particular mental illnesses (as well as result from such disorders).

The good news is, addressing the sleep disorder may help alleviate symptoms of the mental health problem. And one way to get more sleep? Get sweating.

Being active can also improve sleep quality and encourages deeper more restorative sleep, which is super important around exam time and when you have a heavy workload

Sarah Russell – Exercise Clinician for the NHS and movement coach

Ola Sogbanmu, a Personal Trainer at URBANFITNESS London, agrees and shares an added bonus: “It also gives you great energy levels for those late-night studies and, in turn, helps calm you down to ease you into a good night’s sleep. And we all know sleep is number one for a better body and mind.”

A young woman stretches using an exercise ball
  • Increases self-esteem and self-control

“Research has shown that one of the most valuable ways that exercise helps is that it brings about a sense of self-esteem and self-control. A sense of having control of things around us is vitally important and exercise is the one way we can do this – especially when life is stressful, pressures are placed on us and things feel out of control,” says Sarah.

  • Increases self-efficacy

Sarah tells us that exercise also helps increase self-efficacy, which is the knowledge you can achieve something and having confidence in your ability to do so. And this, she says, can have a knock-on effect into other areas of your life.

“Imagine it’s a rainy dark morning, but you drag yourself out of bed to go for a run with a friend. You might not want to go and it might be really tough to make yourself do it. But you do. The satisfaction of setting a goal, getting up and going for that run, gives you a huge sense of achievement. This builds self-efficacy that you can overcome barriers, it builds confidence in your ability to rise to a challenge and this builds self-confidence,” says Sarah.

A man does yoga on the beach
  • Encourages routine

Research has found that having a routine can result in a wide range of psychological benefits including alleviating stress and a range of mental health issues. And the good news is, exercise can encourage routine too.

“Exercise is a considered thing. Often thinking about how and when to exercise can be part of structuring your day, which can be useful in terms of routine – which can help when feeling low or anxious. It can be an outlet for stress or worry and provides a place to think, or alternatively to empty your mind of everything else,” says Siân Duffin, Student Support Manager at Arden University.

  • Can be social

We are social creatures and connection is vital for our wellbeing. So much so, the NHS even lists ‘connect with people’ first in their five steps to improving mental wellbeing.

“Group exercise and classes is a great way to involve social contact, and making friends can help increase self-esteem for those exercise regularly,” says Siân.

A group of women play hockey
  • Develop a lifelong skill

Kira Mahal is the founder of Reset LDN, the official wellness partner of The Project at Hoxton – the world’s first student-led experiment into what it means to live better. As a result, wellbeing is at the heart of the new accommodation which features a dedicated space for movement.

Kira told us that students are facing more pressure to achieve and as such they need to learn skills to cope with stress.

“As a society we are always switched ‘on’ and we are only just beginning to see the terrible effect this is having on our physical and mental health. As the first generation to experience this phenomenon in the form of phones, laptops, tablets etc, it is becoming an urgent topic to address. Students are likely to cope with stress in the wrong ways: partying, drinking etc. Exercise provides the most amazing stress and endorphin release and the sooner we can help individuals experience this as a part of their lives, the better,” she says.

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