Student survey unearths startling drop in fitness levels after Junior Cert

A startling drop in fitness levels among post Junior Cert secondary school children, is one of the primary findings of a new survey of over 30,000 students.

The survey also found those in exam years tend to neglect their physical well being and that almost 60 percent of teachers believe parents aren’t interested in how well their children are doing with P.E.

Addressing the lower level of participation among Leaving Cert students as revealed in the 2017 Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge , recently retired Irish Rugby player Sophie Spence said that while we know children are under pressure to juggle priorities in exam years and as they progress towards Leaving Cert, there is actually never a better time to learn how to balance your health and work.

"If you learn how to fit exercise into your day when you are young, this will stand in your stead throughout your working life. Forming the habit of regular exercise at an early age is crucial to maintaining and improving your fitness levels throughout your life.”

The 2017 Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge results also showed that girls outperformed boys over the six-week period, with an average fitness improvement of 16%, in comparison to 6% in boys.

This boost in cardiorespiratory fitness is proven to significantly lower risk of chronic diseases.

Now in its sixth year, over 172,000 children in total have participated in the Challenge, making this the third largest fitness study of its kind in the world.

The Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge analyses shuttle run performance, which is recognised as an “excellent tool” to screen youth fitness levels.

The challenge measures cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) – low CRF increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), while improving CRF is associated with a reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Professor Niall Moyna, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance, DCU, who has overseen the School’s Fitness Challenge since its inception, believes the Challenge results are encouraging, but calls for increased analysis of fitness among schoolchildren.

Professor Moyna said: “Continuous surveillance of fitness in children should be mandatory in primary and secondary schools. The 20m shuttle run test has been conducted across 50 countries in six continents and is endorsed by the National Academy of Medicine in the US as an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness.

"We need to take this seriously at a school level in Ireland too, as the Challenge results show if the right interventions are made, there can be a massive improvement to cardiorespiratory fitness levels in just six weeks.”

He continued: “There is nothing more important to an individual than their health and the introduction of PE as an examinable subject this year is an important first step.

"However, there is still an urgent need for a stand-alone health science curriculum in schools, to teach young people health literacy and the reasons why long-term fitness is so important to their future health and in preventing them from developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in later life.”

Congratulating the winners in this year’s School’s Fitness Challenge, Irish Life Health Managing Director Jim Dowdall said: “I’d like to extend huge congratulations to the winning schools and students.

"We were thrilled to see the level of participation reach a new high this year, and in particular the increase in the number of girls participating, which is a really encouraging development. Irish Life Health is very proud to support this Challenge and encourages students and their parents to ensure a focus on their fitness remains a lifelong priority as this will fuel the health of our nation.”

Long-time supporter of the School’s Fitness Challenge, Olympic 400m Hurdler, Thomas Barr says: “I think there has been incredible developments in the Irish mindset towards health and fitness in recent years – and the boosted numbers participating in the Challenge is evidence of this. A huge congratulations to everyone who took part. If you stuck with the six-week Challenge, you’re definitely a winner!”.

Ireland’s Fittest Schools:

Mixed/Overall - Gort Community School, Co. Galway

Boys - St Macartan’s College, Co. Monaghan

Girls - Mount Anville Secondary School, Co. Dublin

Ireland’s Most Improved School:

Mixed - Gort Community School, Co. Galway

Boys /Overall - St Macartan’s College, Co. Monaghan

Girls - Loreto Secondary School, Co. Wicklow

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