We know young people are most at risk when it comes to mental illness, and that exercise can help mental health as well as physical. So how are Australian schools utilising their physical activity programs to help prevent mental illnesses such as depression?

An article from Victoria University’s Alexandra Parker (Professor of Physical Activity and Mental Health) and Michaela Pascoe (Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Exercise and Mental Health) explores this very question, as prevention and early intervention are integral and particularly relevant in an educational environment.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, the rate of engagement with regular exercise through sporting clubs and other physical activities gradually decreases throughout adolescence. So while the Australian Department of Health suggests young people aged between 13 and 17 years should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day, the Australian Health Survey shows that most people in this demographic do not reach this target. Even with physical activity embedded into Australian curriculum, the two hours per week government schools are required to provide during primary and junior secondary education falls short of these guidelines.

So how do we increase engagement with physical activities during these crucially formative years? Parker and Pascoe suggest that motivation to engage in such programs can be increased by offering a choice of activities, increasing skills and ability to engage in physical activity, and providing opportunities for social connection. Because of this, schools are best placed to facilitate this increase in physical activity through the Australian curriculum.

Successful strategies may include supervised programs of moderate to vigorous physical activity for 30-45 mins 3-5 days per week, at least 20 mins of recess per day to promote physical activity outside of physical education classes, or information and education about the benefits of exercise distributed through school-based activities.

At their core, in order to address mental health struggles, successful physical activity programs need to facilitate self-reliance, motivation, and mental health and wellbeing literacy, while also focusing on fun and enjoyment to build confidence and independence.

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