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Active education

Physical activity boosts wellbeing, social inclusion, attainment and employability. Vince Mayne from the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) calls for Higher Education to provide more opportunities for students to get active

Students who are more active have better scores on a host of measures
Gym or sports club membership has a positive impact on feelings of isolation
Higher levels of physical activity correlates with more confidence in attaining a good class of degree

“Mens sana incorpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body is a well-worn and hackneyed phrase but one that couldn’t be more true given the results of the British Active Students Survey. According to the 2017-18 report – the biggest of its kind to date, with 6,891 students responding from 104 Higher Education (HE) institutes across the UK – students who are more active through playing sport or using the gym (or even better, by doing both!) have better scores on a host of measures, including better mental wellbeing, perceptions of attainment and employability, and social isolation.

With 2.4 million students at university across the UK, these HE environments can play a key role in encouraging and educating their students to meet the recommended levels of physical activity. This support will shape their activity habits for later life, helping to reduce adulthood inactivity, alongside associated benefits such as reduced access to primary healthcare, better mental wellbeing and improved long-term employability. Evidence from Sport England’s Active People Surveys also shows that those who attend HE have greater lifelong participation levels than those who don’t attend university.

Starting university is, of course, a key transition for many people and can also carry its own specific challenges, such as managing one’s own finances, cooking and cleaning. These are new experiences for some young people. On top of this, many students may also be away from their traditional support networks of family, friends, teachers or team-mates for the first time – and this can have serious impacts on their ability to cope and consequently their overall sense of wellbeing. This is even more reason for students to improve their wellbeing and feelings of inclusion by playing sport and/or using a gym.

What the surveys say
The Scottish Active Students Survey (SASS) and subsequent British Active Students Survey (BASS) provide strong evidence of the real benefits reaped by physically active students, particularly by participating in sport and going to the gym.

Personal wellbeing
Promotion of regular physical activity and participation in sport or gym memberships improves the personal wellbeing of students. The highest personal wellbeing scores were found for those classified as being active or taking part in both sport and attending a gym. Combining sport and gym produced higher personal wellbeing scores than either in isolation. Providing both options increased the opportunity of better personal wellbeing compared with doing neither.

Mental wellbeing
This is one of the most serious challenges facing universities across the UK, and in many other countries. Universities UK, the lead body for HE, has developed a framework for student wellbeing which includes an audit of what universities are doing to protect and promote good mental wellbeing (#stepchange). Critically, BASS has shown that there’s a key role for sport and physical activity in supporting good mental health among students, with the more active students showing higher (better) mental wellbeing scores.

Social isolation
In an increasingly online society, fear or experience of being socially isolated is a very real problem for many young people. Being a member of a gym or sports club has a positive impact on feelings of being isolated, as does higher levels of physical activity.

Students’ views of their own ability to gain a good degree or get a job after graduating are essential aspects in building self-confidence and this often impacts on their drive to perform well in their academic work. Of those surveyed, 93.7 per cent anticipated gaining a 2:1 or 1st class degree.

Again, higher levels of physical activity correlated with more confidence in attaining a sound degree. Critically, those who were more active did not study any less than those who were less active, so it could also be speculated that active students have great time management skills too.

In 2013, British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) produced a report which showed through independent data that, on average, young people who go to university will earn more across their careers than those who do not. Although this is perhaps not surprising, the report also demonstrated that those who go to university and play sport will earn more than those who go to university but don’t play sport, by around 18 per cent per year!

According to BASS, students who were physically active on a regular basis rated themselves higher on 8 out of the 10 employability skills measured, with teamwork and drive scoring highest, in addition to the personal skills of communication, leadership and self-promotion.

BUCS is one step ahead
As the lead body for sport and physical activity in HE, BUCS aims to deliver “the best university sports experience in the world” and drive higher levels of active participation at its 160-member institutions.
This year BUCS celebrates 100 years of inter-university competition, since its first athletics competition at the University of Manchester, and aims to ensure its relevance in the ever-changing HE environment. So, although its competition programme remains core, focus is shifting towards enhancing student wellbeing and promoting the value of sport in a wider context within a tightening financial environment.

In terms of performance, BUCS’s Super Rugby programme features the top 10 teams UK-wide in a weekly league format and sends successful teams to the Summer and Winter University Games; the Summer Games is the second largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics.

Investment across the sector via sports scholarships and support services of strength and conditioning, sports science, physio and sports therapy are also considerable, providing a pathway for dual-careers as student-athletes, leading to Commonwealth and Olympic success for many (67 per cent of Team GB medals were from current or former HE students).

Within its competition programme, BUCS delivers the largest annual multi-sports event in the UK at its BUCS Nationals event. It also hosts BUCS Big Wednesday – the culmination of the team sports competitive season with 52 finals on one day at one venue; in 2019 this is returning to the University of Nottingham. BUCS has also hosted the largest surfing competition and student rowing regatta in Europe, as well as para-sport events in swimming, athletics and wheelchair tennis.

BUCS also has one of the largest chains of independent fitness clubs in the UK and serves a significant number of members nationwide. Its free UNIversal Gym Card scheme gives full members at participating universities complementary use of fitness facilities at other members’ clubs to promote year-round physical activity. So students returning to their parental home in a different location during vacations and university staff travelling around the UK can remain active at no additional cost.

About the author
Vince Mayne

Vince Mayne is CEO of British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS). vince.mayne@bucs.org.uk More: www.bucs.org.uk

Best in class
University of Warwick

The University of Warwick is investing around £50m in sport and wellness to help deliver their ‘active campus’ strategy. Warwick has a bold vision of becoming the most active campus in the UK and is using both its facility infrastructure and its campus to deliver this.

The new Sport and Wellness Facility opens in April 2019 to members of the university and the local community. This provides a clear statement of the importance of health, wellbeing and being physically active on campus as well as the university’s role in promoting these topics in the wider community.

The Sport and Wellness Facility showcases a 230-station gym (one of Technogym’s premier sites), a 12-court arena, a 12-lane, 25m swimming pool with a moveable floor, an extensive climbing facility with two speed walls (one of only two facilities in the UK) and more.

The university is sector leading in its participation programmes and recently won the BUCS Participation Programme of the Year award. It’s one of 10 HE institutions to receive an externally-verified BUCS Physical Activity Excellence award for its work, as well as an award for its #reshaping sport campaign – to make sport more inclusive.

Warwick has a bold vision of becoming the most active campus in the UK
Best in class
Kings College London
Students can track their activity on and off campus and receive “reward points” redeemable against many products

At Kings College London, 8,000 people attend its health and fitness facilities. Kings has three gyms across its Campuses (The Strand Gym, London Bridge Gym, Waterloo Gym) and a further two gyms at its Halls of Residences. Conveniently located and offering student-friendly prices, the gyms counteract barriers to being active such as convenience, cost and time.

At Kings, more than 200 classes are offered per week, as well as virtual activity training at some of the facilities. The university also runs an Active Wellness Scheme that students can be referred to in order to help combat lower-level mental health issues. This has been heralded a great success. An initiative called Kings Move also enables participants (13,000 at present) to track their activity both on and off campus and receive “reward points” for their activity, redeemable against a range of products. This has seen a huge increase in participation and retention rates.

Best in class
University of Nottingham

Since the opening of its £40m David Ross Sports Village, the sport and physical activity offer at the University of Nottingham has been transformed.

More than 25,000 students now engage in university sport programmes annually: 7,000 members belong to its 73 sports clubs; 3,000 students sign up to its intramural competitions; and 3,000 students participate in its introduction to sport engagement programme. The facilities offer more than 200 fitness classes a week.

Furthermore, the university is a leading institution for disability and inclusive sport and physical activity. In 2017/18 it received more than 500 referrals from the disability liaison team, with 477 of those purchasing sports membership to support and aid their physical or mental disabilities and impairments. For those 477 people, 209 supported-fitness sessions were delivered. These sessions aimed to provide a safe and supportive environment in the gym, allowing individuals an opportunity to train with their non-disabled peers.

Four accessibility videos have also been produced to support students and staff before they even visit the facilities in order to help reduce any feelings of anxiety and improve their overall experience.

This year the University of Nottingham is working with an award-winning partner Parallel, to deliver an inclusive running event catering for all abilities and age groups on its main campus in Nottingham.

The Department of Sport will also be working with a range of partners to deliver a programme that will promote the benefits that sport and physical activity can have on the mental wellbeing of its male student population thanks to contributive funding from BUCS/Sport England.

More than 25,000 students now engage in the university’s sport programmes every year
Best in class
University of Birmingham Sport
£65m has been invested in the indoor and outdoor sports facilities

University of Birmingham Sport (UBSport) offers an extensive range of inclusive sport and fitness opportunities for students, staff and the wider community, ranging from beginner to performance sport. Around £65m has been invested in indoor and outdoor sports facilities over the past three years, including the £55m Sport & Fitness club.

Of the 11,000 Sport & Fitness club members, over 75 per cent use the 200-station gym and almost 60 per cent use the 50m swimming pool. More than 4,500 class users take part in 180 group exercise classes per week, and almost 2,000 take part in the extensive Campus Sport programme of recreational leagues and one-off events, engaging a broad spectrum of students from across the university.

The Sport & Fitness Club has also enabled the university to significantly expand its junior offer. This includes over 1,000 children and 42 local schools on its swim programme, and the relaunch of its Junior Sports Camps in Easter 2018. In addition to the 3,000 adult community members, around 25 local community clubs and groups use the university’s facilities on a weekly basis.

New outdoor facilities include two international-standard hockey pitches, 10 netball/tennis courts, an additional 3G pitch, a gymnastics centre and an athletics track. This investment has enabled UBSport to enhance student participation and quality of experience, as well as significantly expand its existing community offer.

On the competitive sports side, almost 4,500 students are members of 55 student sports clubs, and 75 students are supported by a sports scholarship.

Although facilities at UBSport weren’t designed to host major events, they’ve already attracted a range of big events, including the UK Transplant Games and British Junior Open Squash, as well as being a venue for the 2022 Commonwealth Games for hockey and squash.

The Sports & Fitness club offers more than 180 group exercise classes

Originally published in HCM Handbook 2019 edition

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