Call for fitness to be prioritised in schools

Aviva Schools Fitness Challenge names Oaklands Community College, Offaly as Ireland’s fittest school

Joy McGinn, Clara O'Rourke, Jennifer Brown and Georgie Poynton from Colaiste Na Hinse, Meath, who took part in Aviva Health’s Schools Fitness Challenge 2013. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds/CPR

Joy McGinn, Clara O'Rourke, Jennifer Brown and Georgie Poynton from Colaiste Na Hinse, Meath, who took part in Aviva Health’s Schools Fitness Challenge 2013. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds/CPR

Mon, Apr 22, 2013, 05:00

The fitness of Irish schoolchildren needs to be given the same priority as subjects such as maths and English, the founder of a nationwide schools fitness challenge has said.

Niall Moyna, a professor in the school of health and human performance at DCU and a member of the university’s centre for preventive medicine, said a health science curriculum, incorporating human biology, the impact of lifestyle on health and physical fitness, should be introduced at Junior and Leaving Certificate level.

“Let’s do something bold. Look at the millions we are spending on healthcare – if we can get children to leave school with a much greater awareness of their physical and mental health and the role of lifestyle, we could save millions in the long run. And it wouldn’t cost a lot to do it. It would just take a little bit of imagination,” Prof Moyna said.

Bold steps
Referring to the 2010 Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity Study , which found that one in four 10- to 18-year-olds were unfit, overweight or obese and had elevated blood pressure, Prof Moyna said bold steps must be taken to improve the fitness of Irish children.

“Children learn PE, they learn biology, but they’re completely separate. We need to contextualise for young people the link between lifestyle and health,” he said.

Prof Moyna made his comments ahead of the announcement today by Minister of Health James Reilly of the winners of the Aviva Health Schools Fitness Challenge 2013.

The challenge measures children’s fitness using a bleep test, which requires participants to run between two points, set 20m apart, before a bleep sounds, known as a shuttle run. Although it starts slowly, the time between each bleep shortens as the test progresses.

Oaklands Community College in Co Offaly was Ireland’s fittest school, while Abbey CBS in Co Tipperary saw the greatest improvement, completing an average of 51 shuttle runs before a six-week training programme and 82 shuttle runs post-training, a 60 per cent increase in fitness levels over the period.

Prof Moyna said there had been significant improvements in all participating schools during the six-week challenge.

Oaklands Community College PE teacher Róisín O’Connell agreed that physical education should be compulsory for students across the secondary education cycle, including Leaving Certificate level. She said it should contribute to CAO points, although she added that it should not be based exclusively on fitness, but should incorporate theory, practical classes, performance, project work and a written exam.

Ms O’Connell said there were many sports-orientated third-level courses such as sports physiotherapy, coaching and sport rehabilitation. “Some kids who would be interested in pursuing these courses might not be as strong academically but they are into sport.”

Ms O’Connell listed some of the benefits of participating in sport, including social benefits, improved communication and leadership skills, and improvement in children’s physical and mental health. “A lot of students wouldn’t do any exercise outside the PE class. That’s why we’re fighting obesity . . . For some the only exercise they get is walking to school.”

Ms O’Connell said the participating class had enjoyed the challenge and had a great sense of achievement in their improvement over the six-week training period.