What World Cup fever (and sports in general) can do for students’ well-being

By Judit Pál
Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Photo credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Cheering for our favourite teams during the World Cup may help create a sense of community and encourage children to be more involved in sports. But when the tournament is over, will kids still be inspired to kick around a football or run around a field? Let’s hope so, because there is wide-ranging, cross-country evidence that more physically active students feel better.

This month’s PISA in Focus discusses how students’ participation in sports activities is related to several aspects of student well-being and academic performance. The analysis, based on data from 54 countries, finds that about 89% of 15-year-old students engage in moderate physical activity outside of school at least once a week – that is, activity that raises students’ heart rate and causes them to sweat (such as walking, climbing stairs, riding a bike to school) for at least 60 minutes per day. But only 52% of students attain the recommended level of activity for adolescents – vigorous exercise (activities that make students sweat and breathe hard and fast for at least 20 minutes, such as jogging, playing tennis or football) at least 3 days per week – as defined by the World Health Organisation.

Moreover, participation in this kind of activity varies a lot across countries. For example, among the PISA countries that participated in the 2018 World Cup, in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Poland and Sweden, more than 60% of students engage often in vigorous physical activity. By contrast, in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, France and Tunisia, less than 40% of students do. Similarly, the data reveal significant differences across countries in the gender gap related to practicing sports. While boys are more physically active than girls everywhere, the disparities are largest in Japan, Korea and in Latin American countries. In contrast, in Northern and Eastern European countries, the gender gap is relatively narrow.
More sporty students feel less like an outsider at school, skip school less frequently and are less likely to be a victim of a bullying.
A previous Education and Skills Today blog post described how physical activity might be linked to students’ well-being. This PISA in Focus takes a closer look at the issue by examining the relationship between the amount and type of physical activity and various aspects of well-being. First, it finds that students who exercise at least three days per week report greater satisfaction with life than students who do not exercise outside of school. Second, the data also reveal that these students are less likely to feel anxious about schoolwork than their peers. The results suggest even more positive effects on well-being: more sporty students also feel less like an outsider at school, they skip school less frequently and are less likely to be a victim of a bullying.

All in all, when World Cup fever cools down, educators and policy makers should think hard about how they can help students stay physically active, both in and outside of school. The benefits to student well-being are likely to be considerable, especially in countries that don’t yet consider sports to be an integral part of education.


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