case study: Student Sport and Activity Study Ireland


Student Sport Ireland (SSI) is the governing body for third level (College and University) sport and physical activity provision in Ireland. Considering that approximately 62% of school leavers transfer to higher education in Ireland, the potential for educational institutions to influence participation in physical activity is immense. The Student Activity and Sport Study Ireland (SASSI) was therefore commissioned by Student Sport Ireland and undertaken by a consortium from 4 academic institutions to investigate sports and physical activity participation, preferences, provision and the associated wellbeing outcomes for students in third level institutions. SSI supported the research alongside the colleges themselves, Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland.

The SASSI assessed

  1. the environment, provision and support for student sport and physical activity
  2. self-reported participation in sport and domain specific physical activity within and outside college, and the associated health outcomes
  3. the determinants, motivators and barriers to participation.


In Phase 1, a Self-Assessment Review was conducted in 33 institutions (9 Universities, 12 Institutes of Technology and 12 Colleges) to describe the environment, provision and support for student participation in sport and physical activity.

In Phase 2, 31 colleges and over 9,000 students participated in an online survey. After data cleaning and weighting, analysis was performed on 8,122 surveys. The survey included self – reported participation in sport and physical activity within and outside the college, and the determinants, motivators and barriers to participation and a number of health-related behaviours and outcomes. Students were also asked to indicate the highest standard they have achieved in a sport in which they are currently competing. Students could describe themselves as ‘Elite’, ‘Competitive’ or ‘Recreational’. Those who indicated that they were ‘Elite’ are considered ‘Student Athletes’. A total of 469 elite student athletes (n=320 male) were identified and analysed in the sample. In Phase 3, objectively measured physical activity, cardiovascular fitness and a range of health-related factors were gathered from 463 students in 5 colleges. Data provided a greater understanding of the physical health, fitness and physical activity levels of students.

Wellbeing measures used

The Mental Health Index (MHI– 5) was adopted from the widely used RAND SF – 36. The range of scores is between 0 and 100, with higher scores being indicative of higher levels of positive mental health and wellbeing. Level of physical activity was measured using the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (IPAQ). Happiness was measured on a scale of 1-10 (1 = Extremely unhappy, 10 = Extremely happy). General health was measured on a 5-point Likert scale (very good to very poor).

Key Findings


35% of respondents reported no sporting activity in the previous 4 weeks. More males (71%) were sufficiently active than females (58%). Students living over 30 minutes from college were unlikely to engage in college-based sport. Participation levels in college-only sport were low (14%) compared to participation in other domains. Nearly 90% of all current non-participants reported that they could be encouraged to participate in sport again. Females were more likely to express this view than males. Developing new social networking initiatives providing friendship and support for non-participants to engage in physical activity, promotional campaigns targeted at females and accessible, low cost, short, exercise and fitness sessions, are strategies for improving sporting engagement.

64% met physical activity guidelines (i.e. high active IPAQ category), with gym based exercise the most prevalent activity. Over 70% participate in individual sports with individual activities making up 8 of the 10 most popular sports – Gaelic football and soccer have the highest rate of participation for team sports. 40% of students either cycle (34%) or walk (6%) to college. The results suggest an extremely positive relationship between actively commuting to college and meeting physical activity (high active) guidelines. Provision for individuals with a disability remains a challenge for third level colleges and is a greater challenge for team sports. Only 42% of all clubs indicated having any facility for individuals with disabilities.

Funding models rarely favour active transport, yet the SASSI provides clear evidence for the benefits of active commuting. Funding is commonly allocated to traditional team sports. The data here points to a clear preference for individual activities. SASSI results tentatively provide an argument for strategic investment into individual sports and a greater focus on increasing the number of active commuters.

Self-Reported Health

Elite student athletes had significantly higher scores for self-reported health in the last 12 months compared to the rest of the student population. 74% reported their health as very good or good compared to 54.3% for the non-athlete student population.

Mental Health

Findings show that the overall mean score for the student respondents was 67 (±SD 20). The picture for student athletes is far more favourable, however, with student athletes significantly more likely to have a high MHI-5 score than the rest of the student population (p=0.00). The differences are particularly pronounced for females – the overall female student population has a mean score of 65 and female student athletes score over 70.


When student athletes are compared to the general student population, their happiness ratings are significantly higher. 72% of elite athletes score highly for happiness (i.e. 7-10) compared to 64% of other students.


Further information