Exercise program a big HIIT for students’ well-being

Nov 30 2018

Professor David Lubans

A high intensity physical activity program targeting senior high school students has scored a positive report card, not only improving students’ fitness, but also their mental well-being.

Created by University of Newcastle and Australian Catholic University researchers in collaboration with the NSW Department of Education, the Burn 2 Learn pilot program, which features short but intense workouts, has been designed to address the decreasing amount of physical activity adolescents do as they get older.

Using the science of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which involves short bursts of high intensity activity, interspersed with brief periods of low-intensity active recovery or rest, Burn 2 Learn aims to improve students' health and fitness, with potential flow on effects for their mental well-being and academic performance.

Lead researcher, Professor David Lubans, said the Burn 2 Learn program was designed to be fun, engaging and time efficient.

“High intensity activity is very potent and lab-based studies have found that HIIT can improve aspects of mental health and cognitive function, both of which are important for academic performance,” Professor Lubans said.

“Young people who are doing well at school also tend to be fitter and more active. Unfortunately, increasing time demands and academic pressures in the final years of school drive many senior school students to sacrifice time usually spent being active. We designed the Burn 2 Learn program so students could get the maximum physical, psychological and cognitive benefits of physical activity in the minimum amount of time.”

The pilot study recruited 68 year 11 students aged 16-18 from Merewether and Kotara High schools. Students in the intervention school participated in three blocks of 10 minute high intensity interval training sessions each week, as part of the 14 week pilot program.

Teachers were trained to facilitate the delivery of the novel training program, which included a variety of pre-designed HIIT workouts, including Gym HIIT, Sport HIIT, Hip Hop HIIT, Combat HIIT, Class HIIT (which can be done inside a classroom), and a short option known as Quick HIIT (four minutes) for days when there isn’t much time.

High-intensity interval training has emerged as a relatively novel and time-efficient strategy for improving aerobic fitness in adolescents. Aerobic fitness is a ‘powerful marker of health’, with evidence demonstrating that lower fitness during late adolescence is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and mortality later in life.

Professor Lubans said international physical activity guidelines recommend that adolescents, the age bracket from 13 to 17 years, should engage in a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity each day.

“In addition to the recommended 60 minutes of activity a day, it is suggested that adolescents engage in muscle and bone strengthening activities, such as resistance training, on at least three days per week,” Professor Lubans said.

“However, in spite of the well-established benefits, physical activity levels decline by about seven per cent each year during the teenage years, and approximately 80 per cent of adolescents worldwide are not satisfying current physical activity recommendations.”

The research team, working in conjunction with the Hunter Medical Research Institute's Cardiovascular Program analysed the effectiveness of the program by assessing students’ cardiorespiratory fitness using a 20m shuttle run test and their muscular endurance using a push-up test.

The validated ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’, which has been used extensively in adolescent populations, was used to assess participants’ psychological distress.

“Our preliminary findings suggests that school-based HIIT can positively impact health-related fitness and improve mental health in older adolescents,” Professor Lubans said.

“The final years of school are a great time to introduce students to the benefits of HIIT to assist them through a difficult period in their lives and support their lifelong participation in physical activity.”

The Burn 2 Learn program is a collaboration between researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australian Catholic University, and Northeastern University, in partnership with the New South Wales Department of Education.

The study, ‘Feasibility and Preliminary Efficacy of a Teacher-Facilitated High-Intensity Interval Training Intervention for Older Adolescents’ was published in Pediatric Exercise Science.

The research team is in the process of conducting a large-scale cluster randomised trial with 20 secondary schools (approximately 800 students) and is currently recruiting schools in the Sydney, Newcastle and Central Coast regions. The project is funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council Project Grant.

In 2020, the research team, in collaboration with the NSW Department of Education will pursue additional funding to rollout the program throughout NSW secondary schools.