Ensuring positive mental health

Can you disprove this? Taking part in regular physical activity through the SU doesn’t have an effect on students’ personal psychological wellbeing



Regular physical activity – we suggest that SUs work with the national indicator of 3x30 – at least 3 periods of 30 minutes moderate intensity activity per week (or 12 days per month). Excludes walking or recreational cycling.

Personal psychological wellbeing – we are focusing here on the role of physical activity in the improvement of personal psychological wellbeing. We will take a few simple commonly-used indicators: very high happiness yesterday, very low anxiety yesterday, very low stress yesterday.

Fortunately much high-quality evidence already exists about the value of sport in helping with mental health. A conservative estimate suggests that we should expect an improvement of about 10% in responses to indicator questions for students who are regularly active according to the definition above.

The survey in Part A would be an interesting experiment to do with your students nevertheless, but perhaps the more valuable thing here is to consider the Part B – what can we say about the contribution of our students’ union towards this impact?


Part A. Quantitative – build the argument

In a survey ask students:

  • to identify themselves as either regularly meeting the 3x30 indicator of active participation or not.
  • whether they believe they have experienced problems with mental health in the last year, regardless of whether they have been formally diagnosed
  • to rate themselves against indicators of personal psychological wellbeing using the following indicators: very high happiness yesterday (yes; no; don’t know), very low anxiety yesterday (yes; no; don’t know), very low stress yesterday (yes; no; don’t know)

Then, compare the responses of the group of students who say they meet the 3x30 criteria with those who say they do not. Are there any significant differences between the groups across any of the indicators?

N.B. When surveying students about the state of their mental health we must be considered with our language and include content warnings where appropriate.


Part B. Qualitative – how does your students’ unions contribute?

If you do Part A

If students identify as having a mental health problem, an explicit open response question about the role of physical activity in managing their mental health should be included in the survey.

If you do not do Part A

Estimate first the breadth of your impact: how many students are regularly involved with sports and physical activity through the union at about a 3x30 level or higher?

Next find at least 3 students who started doing regular physical activity through the SU whilst studying. Interview them to get their perspectives:

  • What happened to their general psychological wellbeing and mental health, if anything?
  • Would they have taken up the activity if the SU hadn’t been offering it?

Lastly find at least 3 students who stopped doing regular physical activity whilst studying.

  • What happened to their general psychological wellbeing and mental health, if anything?
  • Did they stop doing the activity because of anything about the way it was offered through the SU?

What can we say about the role of the students’ union?


Advanced questions

Ask what activities they do through their student groups in local communities to get more people involved in physical activity, and roughly how many people they think they are moving towards 3x30 levels of participation.

Which students seem to have the worst mental health? What specific barriers to physical activities exist for those students?


Existing literature

Sport England’s Value of Sport monitor is extensive but this report is particularly useful here:


Sports and Rec Alliance: “An association between physical activity and reduced symptoms of depression among adults has been generally supported in more than 100 population-based observational studies published since 1995, including nationally representative samples of nearly 190,000 Americans (9-15). Most of the studies looked at cross-sectional associations, which indicated that active people on average had nearly 45% lower odds of depression symptoms than did inactive people. In the national samples of Americans, active people had approximately 30% lower odds of depression."



Example posters from students’ unions

Birmingham City University Students' Union

Leeds University Union and Glasgow Caledonian University Students' Association

Staffordshire University Students' Union



(If you develop an survey template, please send it in for others to use