Concern has been raised over the fitness of Irish children as new figures show 90% of secondary schools provide less than two hours of physical education per student per week.
Irish Life Health is today launching the Schools Fitness Challenge with the aim of improving fitness among secondary school students.
Creator of the challenge Professor Niall Moyna has called for an overhaul of the PE system.
“There’s a perception out there that the PE curriculum and the PE teachers are qualified to teach them about health and wellness – they’re simply not,” he said.
Lack of exercise has damaging and lasting effects on the long-term health of students.
According to Irish Life Health’s 2016 report which examined 82 15-year-old boys over a period of three years, 87% of students who have low fitness levels had the vascular age of a 55-60 year old man and 62% of ‘low-fit’ students were at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Irish Life Health also said that children aged 15 and 16 already show signs of heart disease due to poor fitness and that boys with low levels of fitness had significantly more plaque in the walls of the arteries supplying the brain than very fit boys.
“The vast majority of students leaving secondary school wouldn’t know where to start to design or evaluate their own own health,” Prof. Moyna added.
The fitness gap between boys and girls has been shown to widen as they move through secondary school, with boys measuring 42% fitter than girls.
Reacting to the report, one Dublin mother has expressed her concern about the amount of PE time being provided to her daughter.
“They’re only gone down to one 40-minute class per week and that includes getting changed and getting ready as well. I just felt that at the age of 13 or 14, that’s the time they’re trying to encourage girls to stay in sport.”
According to Irish Life Health, the fittest schools in the country last year were Mount Anville Secondary School in Dublin (girls), St Macartan’s College in Monaghan (boys) and Milltown Presentation Secondary School in Kerry (mixed).
Over 120,000 secondary school children have taken part in the challenge in previous years.
Teachers can register for the challenge online for free before September 22 with fitness tests, including bleep tests, running from October to December.
Students undergo a bleep test to measure their current fitness levels before taking a six week training programme to improve their cardiovascular fitness.
The bleep test is then repeated and the school’s average results are collated to measure improvement.
Irish Life Health said the aim is to make it an enjoyable experience for all involved and, as such, individual performances will not be published to avoid embarrassment.
“We only record pupils’ fitness levels. Names or personal information are not needed and aren’t recorded. Individual fitness test results will be kept strictly confidential. We combine a school’s fitness test results, then use an average value to identify the winners,” according to their website.
The challenge follows the appointment of a new HSE clinical lead for obesity last week who has raised concern over childhood obesity.
“We have reached a point where we absolutely need to put in aggressive prevention and treatment strategies,” Professor Donal O’Shea said.