High intensity interval training and mental health in adolescents

Dr Nigel Harris
Auckland University of Technology

In 2017, Cure Kids collaborated on a joint, contestable funding round with The National Science Challenge, A Better Start. The aim of the partnership was to fund high-quality, mission-led research focused on child and youth well-being, specifically in the areas of childhood obesity, early literacy and learning, mental health problems, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In July 2017, ten projects were funded across the four specific areas.


What is the problem and who does it affect?

The mental health of our teenagers is an issue of growing concern for New Zealand. A recent UNICEF report had New Zealand ranked 38th out of 40 developed countries for child well-being; this includes mental health. This is a highly distressing statistic, and at odds with how most people perceive New Zealand.

Teenage years are also very formative years, and this is often the age where long-term behaviours and habits are formed. The WHO specifically highlights the school setting for physical activity and its effects on health and well-being.

Emerging evidence suggests a link between vigorous physical activity and mental health outcomes. Dr Nigel Harris, from AUT, is leading a programme that will assess the effectiveness of using high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in the school setting to reduce mental health issues.

HIIT has recently emerged as an effective exercise strategy. It is characterised by repeated, brief, intense bouts of exercise for 20 to 120 seconds. It is conjectured that the shorter periods of exercise will be more palatable for teenagers who might have aversion to other longer-form exercises. The team will embed the intervention into the curriculum, and it will be teacher-led, which will help ensure uptake and sustainability.

The nexus between physiological improvements and mental health outcomes is of interest given the known associations between improvements in general aerobic and muscular fitness, and psychological well-being.


What does this project hope to achieve?

There is an over-representation of Maori, as well as those from lower socioeconomic environments, in the prevalence of mental health conditions. With this in mind, Dr Harris will undertake the intervention in a number of low decile schools. The team will also customise parts of the intervention to incorporate a mātauranga Māori approach. Using various cultural narratives, it is designed so that students, especially Maori, will engage more with the programme. These narratives will be woven throughout the delivery of some of the exercise sessions.

The study will recruit just over 400 children from eight schools in total. By way of comparison, half the students will undergo the new HIIT regime, while the other half will have ‘business as usual’ Physical Education. This will allow the researchers to get a better understanding of the effects from the programme.

The primary outcome will be improvements in mental health, measured across a range of parameters at a three-month and 20-week follow up. This will include using the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) which covers a range of measurements associated with mental health.

The intervention is easily scalable to other school settings if successful.