Sport: The easiest way to improve lives


There are many barriers that must be tackled if we are to realise the benefits of genuine sports and physical activity for young people, says Karen Sullivan.

There is, I believe, an area of the curriculum that is, despite 2013 recommendations, woefully inadequate and that is sport – PE, games and active extra-curricular activities within the school environment.

The positive relationship between sport, achievement, happiness and many other areas of emotional wellbeing has long been established, and yet most of our students receive less than three hours of sport every week. 

I would hazard a guess than even those schools that offer the suggested three hours are not actually providing adequate exercise, taking into account time spent changing, walking or being bussed to and from facilities, and, of course, discipline and instruction time. The most recent surveys have found that only about 25 per cent of year 12 students and 22 per cent of year 13 students get the recommended three hours, regardless of what’s on offer.

We could talk at length about the obesity crisis and the fact that inadequate exercise in and out of the classroom plays a key role. We could bemoan the lack of playing fields and sports facilities. We could blame student apathy – after all, isn’t it impossible to persuade kids away from their SmartPhones, computers and tablets and get them moving.

We could also point to a confusing curriculum that is often at cross-purposes with itself, thrusting the focus on academia while expecting sport to take place within hours that simply don’t exist. We could express our frustration with the dearth of specialist sports teachers and instructors, and the fact that funding does not extend to support many of the recommendations made by government.

In the end, someone needs to take note of the realities and the issue must be revisited because the benefits of regular exercise are too important to ignore.

In a nutshell, the research has conclusively found that regular exercise encourages goal-setting and time-management, the development of morality and an appreciation of diversity. It leads to higher grades, expectations and attainment, and encourages greater personal confidence and self-esteem.

Stronger connections to the school are created – in other words, greater attachment to and support from the school – and peer relationships improve dramatically. The benefits extend to home life, with children with high levels of physical activity showing greater family attachment and more frequent interactions with parents. They show more restraint in avoiding risky behaviour and one study found that it reduces the risk of youth suicide significantly.

Sport goes far beyond improving fitness and overall physical health; it provides opportunities to learn values and the skills associated with initiative, social cohesion, self-control, persistence and responsibility, all of which can be extrapolated and applied in other areas of life, both in the present and in the future. Several studies have found that physical activity enhances self-perceptions of body, competence and self-worth, and those involved become more psychologically resilient. 

Although other types of non-sport activities can imbue many of these benefits, sport has much more consistently linked with positive physical and emotional benefits. In fact, youth who play sport report higher rates of self-knowledge, managing emotions, and physical skills compared to peers in academic and leadership activities. 

I’ll be looking at the further benefits in my next column. For now, however, take a close look at the hours you are allocating and work out how many pupils are actually taking advantage of what’s on offer. More to the point, is there enough on offer?

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



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