How colleges can encourage more students to be active

15 May 2019, 8:00

A large scale survey published today reveals that most FE students are not meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for adult physical activity. What can colleges do to support fitness and sport so that students can reap the benefits? Marcus Kingwell offers his tips


Wednesday 15 May sees the release of the British Active Students Survey (BASS) report for further education. With over 3,600 students from 74 colleges taking part in the poll, the report gives a special insight into the sport and physical activity participation of FE students in 2018.

The British Active Students Survey: Further Education 2018/19 shows just how much work there is to do in order to achieve the vision set out by AoC Sport in 2015 in its five year strategy Fit for College, Fit for Work, Fit for Life.

Then, AoC Sport, part of the Association of Colleges, set out the case for more sport and physical activity with the ambitious aim of seeing  ‘every student active’, due to the benefits that sport and physical activity can bring to everyone’s education, employability, health and wellbeing. The evidence at the time was compelling but by 2018 it needed a refresh. So when physical activity campaigners ukactive approached AoC Sport about supporting BASS, we jumped at the chance; financial support from Sport England and Matrix Fitness sealed the deal.

The report provides some fascinating insights as well as confirming many long-held suspicions. For example, seven in ten (70 per cent) of those polled – most of whom are aged 16-25 – are not meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for adult physical activity. One quarter (25 per cent)  are inactive and a large proportion of all students’ time is spent sitting down.

Students indicate that body-image (10 per cent), the time spent on exam revision, homework and future life preparation (28 per cent) and cost (10 per cent) impact the time they spend being physically active. This starts in school and ramps up in FE. It’s a worrying trend and with school sport in a poor state, FE will have to face the consequences for years to come.

But there are also positives to take away from the report. Most students, for example, are aware that sport or physical activity are good for their education, employability, health and wellbeing. Those that are most active have the highest scores for mental wellbeing, social inclusion, social trust and perceived academic attainment, plus the lowest levels of loneliness. This cohort is also the most confident that they will be employed within six months of leaving college. Taking part in sport and going to a gym produces the highest scores in perceived attainment and employability skills and traits.

As to the motivations for being active, the top three were: benefits to physical health (16 per cent); to improve body image (13 per cent), and  to relieve stress (11 per cent). The latter supports this week’s #RunAndRevise campaign which encourages young people to take a break from revision and improve their mental health through running. The message is clear: students should be exercising more during exam time, not less.

So what else can colleges do to encourage more students to be active?

With the survey showing that being part of a sports team was the most popular type of activity (21 per cent), followed by being both in a sports team and attending the gym (18 per cent), there are clear roles for both formal sport and less formal fitness and recreational pursuits. This validates the multi sport and activity approach that we offer to our member colleges, with around 30 different activities being delivered across the country. Colleges should also seek to minimise the time students spend  sitting in classrooms and look for ways of bringing activity into teaching methods.

It is clear from the report that doing some activity is better than none. But meeting the recommended 150 minutes per week provides more benefits and doing a combination of sport and fitness activities provides the most. Clearly colleges have a vital role in supporting and promoting physical activity among young people which goes way beyond ‘sport for sport’s sake’, not only for the benefit of students, but their colleges, communities and future employers too.

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