Hector Ó hEochagáin: I'm fit, my family's fit, and my town is fit

The radio presenter’s hometown has been designated Healthy Town 2016

Navan native Hector Ó hEochagáin and Rosie O’Neill (age 12) at the announcement that Navan, Co. Meath has been designated as the Pfizer Irish Times Healthy Town 2016. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds

Navan native Hector Ó hEochagáin and Rosie O’Neill (age 12) at the announcement that Navan, Co. Meath has been designated as the Pfizer Irish Times Healthy Town 2016. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds

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You probably know Hector Ó hEochagáin from his days as a live-wire television presenter or his stints at the helm of breakfast radio, but he may not initially spring to mind in relation to fitness and healthy lifestyles.

However, last year he opened his own gym in Galway and this year he is acting as the ambassador for The Irish Times Pfizer Healthy Town, which has been named for 2016 as his hometown: Navan, Co Meath.

The idea behind the campaign is to boost people’s health and wellbeing through improving mental and physical health, particularly in provincial towns in Ireland. It’s something Ó hEochagáin has become passionate about, as his lifestyle has changed over the past number of years.

“I like keeping fit. I like training – I train three or four times a week– and I like to keep my family fit. It’s an important part of my daily routine . . . Any initiative in any town to get people healthier and fitter is a good thing,” he says.

Despite recent reports that Ireland is becoming the most obese nation in Europe, Ó hEochagáin believes there are already moves among Irish people to get ourselves more fit and healthy.

“I know there’s a lot of bad publicity about how we’re an obese nation and a lazy nation but there’s a lot of positive sports stuff happening around the country too,” he says.

“There’s an awful lot of people keeping fit, an awful lot of people losing weight, and an awful lot of people transforming their bodies. I think we need to pat ourselves on the back a little bit more and say we are a healthy nation; we’re not all that we’re made out to be – as a bad nation of bad eaters.”

Rise of the gym

Though he played a lot of soccer and GAA in his 20s, and later moved onto playing squash “fanatically” for the best part of a decade, he never considered himself a gym person until the past few years.

“Gyms weren’t as popular 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “There wasn’t a gym on every street, there wasn’t a couple of gyms in every town, and it wasn’t that accessible. I remember when a gym opened in Navan for the first time, it was a big thing.

“Nowadays, gyms have become like coffee shops or restaurants. There are gyms on every street, hotels have made big efforts to have more gyms and swimming pools, so the whole fitness thing has taken shape and moulded over the past 15 years or so. It’s far easier to go to a gym now than it was 20 years ago and I think that’s a good thing.”

It was his first main stint on breakfast radio that got him into the gym. He was up at 5.30am for work, and got into a routine of heading for the gym around lunchtime. It can be intimidating to start with, he says. and requires perseverance before you start reaping the benefits.

“When you go to a gym and you can’t lift anything, you feel weak and you get whiny. You’re saying this is really hard and the next day you feel like shit, with really stiff muscles and you start thinking you’re not going back.

Pat on the back

“People have to get over that and go back, get over the stiffness, and then you see yourself getting stronger . . . When someone can see their body changing or they can say they’ve lost three stone, they deserve a pat on the back,” says Ó hEochagáin.

A big turning point for him was reducing his intake of bread and potatoes, and taking more notice of his diet in general.

“For years we were brought up on mountains of potatoes: mountains of potatoes with your Sunday dinner and with every dinner. There’s just no need for that, and diet is key.

“You can do as much exercise as you want but it doesn’t matter if your diet isn’t right. We’ve got to get that message out, that diet is very important in complement with your exercise.”

Feeding children

Ó hEochagáin has two sons, who are 11 and 12 years old. Keeping them fuelled for all the soccer they play is a job in itself, he says. Diet is especially relevant for kids, especially when sometimes the easier – or only –option is processed or unhealthy foods.

“Any parent in this country who can cook properly for their children and is able to cook properly for their children will try to cook the best things for them. They can’t be lashing the white bread into them or be lashing chips or chicken nuggets or pizzas into them. It’s all in moderation. You’re trying to feed your kids the best you can and every family out there is trying to do that,” he says.

He acknowledges that it can be a struggle for parents to fit in sport or the gym and to make home-cooked healthy meals, on top of working and ferrying kids here, there and everywhere. However, he believes even making a half an hour a day is possible for most people.

“Everyone seems to be able to make an hour for the TV, don’t they? Or how many minutes does an Irish person spend sifting through Facebook or on Twitter or checking their likes?

“I think Irish people should just turn off the phones for half an hour and do their walk, clear their mind and put some music in their ears instead of overloading their eyes with Vines and Snapchats . . . I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better.

“It’s the summertime, it’s your town, you’ll met a lot of people out and about, and you’ll feel better about yourself. It’s going to get your endorphins running, a lot more than a few likes on Facebook will give you.”

What’s on in Navan 2016’s Healthy Town The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthy town project is aimed at showing people how small steps can help them make important changes to their health and wellbeing. Now in its fourth year, this year’s town is Navan. It follows on from last year’s success with Athlone.

Over eight weeks in Septemer and October, a series of talks, free health screenings and events will take place in and around Navan.

The talks, relating to mental and physical wellbeing, are all free and generally take place on a Wednesday evening at 7pm. The first talk will be given by the well-known runner Catherina McKiernan. She will address issues such as taking up running and, if you are already a runner, she will be providing tips as well as advice on general fitness.

Details on talks will be posted on facebook.com/HealthyTownIreland

Other topics which will be addressed later in the programme include coping with anxiety by well-known psychologist and broadcaster Harry Barry and a talk on parenting by Sarah O’Doherty, a Health + Family columnist.

A series of health screenings with various local groups as well as public health screenings will be carried out by the Irish Heart Foundation. These are also free.

Each week Health + Family will feature an article allied to the theme of that particular week. There will also be a dedicated microsite on the main Irish Times website.

It will feature regular articles and a Tip of the Day on everything ranging from how to get a good night’s sleep to food portions.

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