Be a sport: give children a better chance

Young bodies often hide the effects of poor diet and lack of exercise, but it may still be shortening their lifespan, according to risk-assessment authors Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter

Sport, as the old ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ adage tells us, is good for the brain. It can also instil focus and self-esteem in wayward youngsters. Photograph: Getty Images

Sport, as the old ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ adage tells us, is good for the brain. It can also instil focus and self-esteem in wayward youngsters. Photograph: Getty Images


Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, the authors of The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger, have come up with an interesting mechanism for calculating the effects of certain lifestyle choices on our life expectancy. Some decisions can be good for you, some bad.

Taking a single alcoholic drink, for example, can add 30 minutes to an adult’s life expectancy; drinking two strong drinks will subtract 30 minutes. Smoking four cigarettes will cut an hour from your time on Earth; five servings of fruit and veg will add two hours back on. Loafing in front of the television for a couple of hours will zap 30 minutes. And so on.

Poor diet and exercise patterns will add up day after day. Blastland and Spiegelhalter reckon an extra inch on your waistline will cost you 30 minutes of life expectancy a day. The worst of it, if you’re a child regularly engaging in poor lifestyle choices, is that it will embed bad habits that are difficult to change.

“If you enter middle age carrying a great mound of tyre around your girth because you’ve been idle all your youth, then you’ve accumulated quite a lot of additional risk,” says Blastland. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Can I start reversing an extra two stone of weight by the time I get to 60?’ You’ll have this adverse health legacy that will be tough to remove.”

According to the Irish Heart Foundation, 22 per cent of Irish children between five and 12 are overweight or obese. The ill effects of obesity on children have been well chronicled. It sets them up for a host of problems later in life, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Hidden sickness

“Often children can be out of shape and unhealthy, but not necessarily overweight,” adds Dr Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York.

“Young people who are not exercising a lot, who don’t necessarily have a healthy diet, might not be overweight now, but they still have the risk factors for metabolic syndrome. They still have high blood pressure. There could still be things going on inside them that are making them sick, but we just don’t necessarily see.

“The obesity might just manifest when they become a teenager or when they become a young adult. Children – at least some of them – have this naturally protective mechanism where they can stay lean. That kid you probably know who could eat 10 cookies and ice-creams and not gain any weight, who looks like a beanpole, but on the inside that child might not be well.”

It is recommended that adults exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Children need twice this amount. Yet modern society is steadily removing the ways in which children used to exercise unwittingly, such as walking or cycling to school instead of getting the bus or a lift.

Ruth Kilcawley is the nutritionist for the Mayo senior Gaelic football team and Athletics Ireland. She also has two children, who are five and eight. She laments how sedentary children’s lives have become.

“We know the big ones – television or ‘screen time’, as we call it in our house – but there are little everyday things too. On rainy days at school, for example, a DVD is put on now for children in the class. That would never have been the case years ago. If a DVD wasn’t being shown, what would the children be doing naturally in that situation? You can be guaranteed they’d be more active.

“I don’t think parents are aware of the nutritional quality of the hot deli counters in [local shops]. Once children are going to secondary school and buying their own lunch, that lunch is of very poor nutritional quality; a high-fat, processed-meat option, sausages and wedges. It used to be a sandwich, yoghurt and a piece of fruit.”

Healthy mind, healthy body

Sport, as the old “healthy mind, healthy body” adage tells us, is good for the brain. It can also instil focus and self-esteem in wayward youngsters.

Joe Vaughan co-founded Finglas Boxing Club in 1976. He’s your typical cornerman: squat of frame, infectious company and, according to, “the legend of Coláiste Dhúlaigh”, the vocational school where he teaches and coaches boxing in Coolock, Dublin.

“We’ve had loads of fellas who, in simple language, we straightened out. Some parents would come to me, and say, ‘Will you take this young fella under your wing? He’s been getting into trouble. Maybe the discipline of the boxing would get him right.’

“I remember one afternoon many years ago, I was hanging around the school. There was a cleaner there called Dano. He was a lovely man. He said, ‘Joe, you don’t look in good form.’ ‘Ah, I’m a bit pissed off with the turnout at training yesterday evening at the boxing, you know.’

“He said, ‘Joe, you should never worry. I walk around the streets here in Coolock on a Sunday morning and it’s very simple. I can see the people who were with you boxing because they’re bright-eyed and alert. There’s joy in them. And I see the opposite; the people who are not with you, the ones [who take] drink and drugs.’

“The boxers would have a big fan club. If the lads are going well, the women are around them. There’s a buzz around the place. Young ones saying: ‘When are the finals?’ We’d be getting buses to go. They’d have a spring in their step, a good feeling about themselves.”

The “bright-eyed” boxers are also setting themselves up for a better chance at a long, healthy life. One of the key messages in Blastland and Spiegelhalter’s book is that chronic risks, such as obesity caused by poor diet and lack of exercise, might not kill you straight away, but they tend to kill you sooner than if you’d avoided them.

The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers about Danger is published by Profile Books

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