Brief But Intense Exercise Can Help High School Students Cope With Stresses From Life and the HSC

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When you’re a high school student, life can be extremely stressful. Between pressure from teachers, parents and friends, it can be tough to manage the expectations placed on you. Researchers have looked at how exercise could play a role in managing this stressful time of life.

To do this, researchers asked students in year 11 to engage in short bursts of intense exercise during class a few times a week. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, this resulted in students feeling more engaged in their learning while also experiencing fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The three-year project was conducted by University of Newcastle’s Professor David Lubans and featured 670 year 11 students from 20 NSW government schools. The randomised controlled trial, which was known as Burn2Learn, involved various styles of high-intensity interval training.

Performed in the classroom or outdoors, the exercise session lasted just eight minutes and included a one to two minute warm-up exercise followed by cycles of HIIT for 30 seconds then a period of rest for another 30 seconds. According to SMH, it was up to the schools as to when they chose to run this session, be it at the start of a class or midway through a double period. Students had some input into the workouts as well as the music played during this time.

“The one choice we need to take away from them is the choice about whether to be active,” Professor Lubans told SMH.

The research largely focused on the fitness of the students, which was measured by beep tests. Professor Lubans found that the students’ cardio-respiratory fitness improved after six months of the program, as did upper body muscular endurance, but the most important finding was related to stress.

Stress hormone levels were measured through a hair test at the beginning and end of the study and researchers were surprised to find that cortisol levels dropped over the length of the project thanks to the exercise.

“One of the psychological stress responses is the body’s release of cortisol,” Professor Lubans said. “If you are experiencing a lot of stress over time, you are accumulating cortisol – your body is not processing it. That leads to impairments in mental health and also in learning.”

Researchers also found that even if the exercise sessions ate into class time, the students were more focused when they returned to learning. “They’re paying attention, they’re not being distracted,” said Professor Lubans. “Ours is the first study to ever [show] that in senior school students. That’s nothing new for primary school students. I can say with absolute confidence, you give up some class time, you get better quality from your students.”

While it might not be possible to start doing burpees in the middle of class, this research is a great reminder of the important role exercise plays in the management of daily stress as well as your mental health!

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