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In Conversation With... Dr Nicky Knowles, HCPC Registered Health Psychologist, Behavioural Science Specialist

Welcome to our very first 'in conversation with' blog post! We're thrilled to kick off this exciting series where we'll be diving deep into all things related to children's health, physical activity and movement.

In honour of mental health awareness week, we invited Dr Nicky Knowles to come and chat to us about all things physical activity and mental health. Nicky has twenty years’ experience in the health and social care sector working for a number of providers, within a variety of settings, and with diverse populations, in both operational and strategic roles. Within public health, Nicky’s portfolio has included Tobacco Control, Substance Misuse and Whole System Approaches to Obesity. Through this experience Nicky has developed, delivered and evaluated a range of evidence based, behaviour change interventions and policies at individual, community and population levels.

Hi Nicky, thank you so much for joining us for our first ever ‘in conversation with’ series! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what it means to be a health psychologist?

Thanks so much for inviting me to chat with you! So as a health psychologist working in public health, I am interested in understanding how we can support people to improve and protect their health and wellbeing. This involves understanding our thoughts, feelings and attitudes in relation to health and illness and how they, along with our social and physical environment, influence our behaviours and therefore health and wellbeing.  


This week is mental health awareness week. How does physical activity impact children’s mental health and wellbeing?

Being active as a child has so many benefits, too many to name here, but some examples include better sleep, improved attention and concentration, a way of coping with stress and anxiety, development of social skills, connecting with others, and also connecting with nature and being outdoors - the list goes on! When we think what that means for the school day, or within the classroom, children who are more physically active may show signs of improved concentration and increased engagement, which can help to create a calmer learning environment. Physical activity also plays a crucial role in promoting and protecting children’s physical health which in turn further supports improved mental health and wellbeing.


Are there any specific types of physical activity that are beneficial to children’s mental health?

Any movement is good for children’s physical and mental health, it’s really important to focus on what each child enjoys so they build a positive relationship with movement from a young age. There are lots of ways to be active, this could be outdoor play such as running and climbing or team sport such as football, netball and rounders. They are perhaps the more traditional types of physical activity we tend to think of, but physical activity involves other types of movement too like dancing, active play, walking to school or doing yoga.


How can we encourage children to be more physically active, especially in today’s digital age?

The national guidelines recommend that children are active for an average of 1 hour a day so building movement into daily routines can be helpful – this can be broken down into 5 or 10 minute chunks throughout the day. I think it’s really important to find something that children enjoy – this may change over time too so enabling children to explore and try new things as they grow is also key. There are lots of things we can do to encourage this such as making movement fun, identifying and creating opportunities to be active, being active with children and leading by example, recognising and affirming children’s efforts to be active, and helping children to understand the benefits of being active. It's also worth recognising that technology can help to enable physical activity too, that might be through things like activity trackers, fitness apps or active learning apps that incorperate things like physically active exploration challenges.


What role does the school environment play in supporting children’s mental health through physical activity?

We know that the school environment plays a really important role in enhancing and protecting children’s physical and mental wellbeing through being active. Schools can provide environments where being active is inclusive by supporting children to try different activities, encouraging them to do what they enjoy and to develop at their own pace. We know that schools can help to provide access to indoor and outdoor spaces for physical activity such as playgrounds, sports fields and swimming pools. As well as structured PE lessons, schools can encourage and enable things like active breaks, increase children’s knowledge around the benefits of being active, and create opportunities to be active whist learning. Again, it's reinforcing the important of allowing children to explore, helping to develop those positive experiences with physical activity from a young age.

Thank you Nicky, for your time and insights! We're excited to bring you more conversations like this, sign up to our mailing list to receive our monthly 'Busy Brain Breaks: Brain Food' newsletter so you don't miss a thing.


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