Schools study shows fitness level stalls in teenage girls

Countrywide schools challenge shows that boys’ fitness improves over same age period

Prof Niall Moyna of DCU is optimistic about the future as it is more acceptable for girls to continue in sport and there is an increase in team sport options. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Prof Niall Moyna of DCU is optimistic about the future as it is more acceptable for girls to continue in sport and there is an increase in team sport options. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

The fitness level of Irish girls stalls in their early teenage years, with the average 16-year-old performing no better in tests than a 12-year-old, the results of a countrywide schools-based challenge show.

Boys’ fitness improves over the same age period, with 16-year-olds on average 33 per cent fitter than 12-year-olds, according to the challenge taken by 148 schools.

“The fact that girls are not showing the same improvement in cardiovascular fitness as boys is clearly a cause for concern,” said Prof Niall Moyna of DCU’s school of health and human performance, who set up the challenge four years ago.

Related research into children with low levels of fitness has found evidence of heart disease in the arteries of 15-year-olds, he said. The same children were also found to have high cholesterol, blood pressure and fat levels.

fitness

Fitness programme

Both boys and girls improved their performance after undertaking a six-week fitness programme that forms part of the challenge, which was taken by more than 10,000 children this year.

The average improvement for boys was 12 per cent while for girls, coming from a lower base, it was 19 per cent.

Prof Moyna says a variety of social and cultural reasons may explain young girls’ poor fitness levels.

“There are issues around the continuing participation of girls in sport as they grow older. They may become unused to pushing themselves, to being out of breath, even to the fact their make-up could run.”

However, he is optimistic about the future because of a “paradigm shift” in recent years which has made it more acceptable for girls to continue in sport, as well as an increase in team sport options.

While Irish boys and girls are well above the European average for fitness for their age group, this is not regarded as an accurate guide to the minimum fitness level required for optimal health, according to Prof Moyna.

The European figures are a “race to the bottom” in terms of performance and Ireland should develop its own national norms, he maintains.

Overweight

“Lifestyle behaviours tend to track from childhood to adulthood. Children who are unfit and overweight in their teenage years will likely be unfit and overweight as adults.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will today present prizes to the most improved schools in the challenge, which is sponsored by Aviva Health.