We need to move our bodies to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. According to the World Health Organization, more than 80 percent of adolescents fail to get enough physical exercise every day. Understanding why this is so and figuring out what to do about it is central to research carried out by Attilio Carraro, Professor of Sport Pedagogy at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (unibz). “My team and I are researching strategies to promote physical activity, particularly in sedentary populations. The key message is how to motivate more people to move more. Our research encompasses areas such as sport and exercise sciences, pedagogy, education, and psychology, particularly, exercise psychology,” he says. “Also, we’re doing research in connection with primary and secondary schools.”
South Tyrol, in northern Italy where unibz is located, is a unique area with three official languages – German, Italian, and Ladin. Schoolchildren are primarily taught through German or Italian, but Ladin is also used in some areas. Attilio, a native Italian speaker, and his colleague, Associate Professor Benjamin Niederkofler, a native German speaker, work closely with local primary and secondary schools. They’re also involved with sports associations and clubs, community associations, and volunteers active in the region. “In schools, we’re mainly working with teachers to help them use physical education as a subject to increase their students’ out-of-school physical activity,” he says. “And we’re running two projects where we monitor the fitness of children and adolescents in schools and promote good fitness habits.”
Connecting with the local community is a central element of working at unibz. By conducting research in the local region, researchers are supporting the university’s Third Mission and making a positive impact on the lives of people in South Tyrol. The region has another benefit for Attilio’s research as it’s one of the most physically active areas in Italy and very “sport-oriented”.
Early on in his career, Attilio was a secondary school PE teacher. This first-hand knowledge is useful for his research and teaching commitments at unibz. Now he’s helping to train the next generation of teachers to teach physical education to their students. This is all the more important as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused fitness and physical activity levels to drop in youth populations around the world. He and his team plan to embrace technology and collaborate with the Computer Science department to promote fitness and physical literacy. They’re going to develop an app to encourage young adults to engage in recreational sporting activities during their leisure time. Another project involves developing an electronic monitoring system to track fitness in youth and adults.
A key aspect of Attilio’s research is looking at the link between physical activity and mental health. He has intensive research experience in this area and believes that exercise is essential for promoting good mental health and can even prevent the onset of mental illness. It’s also valuable as an additional treatment for people suffering from illnesses like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. People who exercise regularly tend to recover faster and need fewer drugs than those who don’t.
The Faculty of Education where Attilio is based encourages interdisciplinary collaborations. “In our faculty, there are lots of opportunities to cooperate with colleagues from different fields,” he says. “And this is something great for people coming here for research, because it's a good way to open your mind to new ideas.” He plans to recruit some new researchers to his team in the near future and is particularly interested in hearing from German-speaking applicants. His group is also very well connected at the national and international level and is involved in several projects with European colleagues.
Attilio moved to unibz, a young university that’s just 25 years old, from an old university steeped in tradition, attracted by the possibility of trying something new in a different place. Unibz has given him carte blanche to take his research in whatever direction he thinks best. He feels that South Tyrol is a special multilingual environment which encompasses both Italian and German cultures. This is reflected in the university where three languages are widely spoken – German, Italian, and English. He describes Brixen-Bressanone, the campus where the Faculty of Education is based, as a “wonderful location” as it’s nestled in a picturesque valley in the middle of the Alps. The Plose mountain close by is a popular destination for hiking during the summer or skiing in winter. He says, “The university campus by the river is really beautiful, and the people at the university are very warm and welcoming. Working here means you have a very good quality of life.”
Attilio Carraro is a tenured professor of Sport Pedagogy at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. Together with his team, he researches strategies to promote physical activity, particularly in sedentary populations. His research encompasses areas such as sport and exercise sciences, pedagogy, education, and psychology, particularly, exercise psychology.