The University of Newcastle, Australia

New project to investigate the effect of exercise on stress in HSC students

Friday, 21 June 2019

Can exercise help stressed out HSC students? This new research project will find out.

Jordan Smith

University of Newcastle researcher Dr Jordan Smith will begin a new $100,000 trial that will look at how physical activity and fitness can help adolescents become more resilient to stress.

Lecturer with the School of Education and researcher within the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and Hunter Medical Research Institute’s Cardiovascular Program, Dr Smith and his team including Professor David Lubans, Professor Mark Beauchamp, Dr Eli Puterman, and Professor Frances Kay-Lamkin were awarded $100,000 in research funding from HMRI. The local community donated the funds during restaurateur Neil Slater’s annual Gastronomic Lunch fundraiser.

The project, titled ‘Physical activity, fitness, and resilience to stress during the final years of schooling’ will evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of a school-based exercise program on students’ stress and will also aim to explore the physiological mechanisms that explain the positive effects of exercise on youth mental health.

Dr Smith says the pressure to perform well academically during the final years of schooling is causing teenagers to choose study over exercise.

“Chronic stress undermines academic achievement and well-being and Australian students report higher stress than those in other high-income countries,” he said.  “Formal opportunities for physical activity during the school week like physical education and school sport typically cease at the end of Grade 10, and while senior students may be mature enough to take responsibility for their own health and well-being, the high stakes nature of end-of-school examinations means many students simply fail to prioritise exercise.”

Dr Smith says the low levels of physical activity common during late adolescence may be contributing to the spike in mental illness that is seen in this group.

“Research has shown only 6% of 15 – 17 year olds are sufficiently active and Mission Australia data suggests up to 1 in 4 older adolescents has a probable serious mental illness,” he said.

Dr Smith said his project aims to determine how exercise promotes resilience to stress in late adolescence, by examining changes in psychological and neurobiological markers of the stress-response.

“We will evaluate the impact of an 8-week exercise program delivered within the school setting on stress-reactivity by measuring salivary cortisol. We will also explore the effect of exercise intensity on changes in stress-reactivity, to further our understanding of how exercise can help adolescents manage stress,” Dr Smith said.

Groups of local high school students will complete weekly exercise sessions. Some students will be randomly selected to perform high intensity activity, while others will perform lower intensity activities, such as walking and stretching. There will also be a control group that will not exercise during the study period.

“By manipulating exercise intensity and measuring changes in students’ cortisol reactivity to a standardised stressor task, we will be able to determine whether exercise trains the body’s stress-response pathway, or whether the psychological benefits of exercise are explained by other mechanisms,” Dr Smith said.

“We’ll also be assessing how well students stick with the program, their satisfaction with the exercise sessions, and whether a program of this type could feasibly be incorporated into the normal school week.

“This research will have direct implications for educational policy in Australia, and may also help to inform future programs targeting senior students' academic achievement and well-being. With youth mental illness being such a prevalent and pressing societal problem, this research is urgently needed and our team are extremely grateful to HMRI and all of those who generously donated to make this project possible,” Dr Smith concluded.


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