Making fit kids: Back at the school desks, and back in action

What can be done to help youngsters get at least an hour’s exercise every day?

Like many parents, Naomi del Pozo worries about how her two children are going to get the minimum hour’s physical exercise they need every day, now that schools are back and the autumn nights start to close in.

Seven-year-old Ben and four-year-old Lola have been on the go most of the summer. After a two-week multi-activity camp for Ben, a camping trip to France, which involved the family in daily outdoor activities, and a break with friends in Youghal when they were able to go to the beach every day, being back in the classroom and creche respectively puts a brake on their exercise.

“To be honest, they will be getting less physical activity when they return to the normal routine,” says del Pozo. Later in the year, “by the time I collect them after work it’s dark, homework has to be done, dinners have to be made and there’s not much option of outdoor exercise for them”.

Ben plays football in a local club in southwest Dublin once a week and both do swimming lessons on a Friday. She is also hoping to enrol Lola in dancing this year.


At home they have a large trampoline in the garden – “the best toy we ever bought” – and they get good use out of it all year round.

"I'll join them on it occasionally, which gives me some exercise too," says del Pozo. And at weekends they try to get outdoors as a family, with her and her husband, Jesús, taking the children to the playground, or going for a cycle in the park, or a walk in the Zoo or the pier in Dún Laoghaire.

The nature of modern family life, with many parents working full-time, the screen-bound nature of much entertainment, and traffic-heavy neighbourhoods mean prolonged physical activity is no longer an automatic feature of childhood.

Only one in four nine-year-olds gets the recommended minimum of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, according to the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study. This drops to just over one in 10, or 12 per cent, in secondary, as noted in Ireland's 2014 Report Card on Physical Activity in Children and Youth, in which we were awarded a D minus for overall physical activity. Could do better, indeed.

The Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), with its "Action for Life" programme, has for some time been putting it up to the primary schools to help children reach their 60 minutes a day. At present, the curriculum recommends a minimum of 60 minutes of physical education (PE) per week : the third lowest out of 36 European countries surveyed by EU's Eurydice Network.

This month the heart charity will embark on another round of training for primary-school teachers in Action for Life 2, starting in this year's designated Healthy Town, which is Athlone, Co Westmeath. Supported in this work by the Department of Education and Skills and part-funded by the HSE, it also promotes "Bizzy Break! For Rainy Days" which, as the title suggests, is a series of five- to 10-minute activities, such as chair aerobics, that can be done in classrooms, to raise the children's heart rate when they can't get out into the school yard – or during an interlude between lessons.

The concerns of the heart charity for the health of pupils have been borne out by surveys such as the Cork Children's Lifestyle Study in 2012-13, the findings of which are still being analysed at University College Cork. It showed that one in four of the 1,000-plus children aged eight to 11 who took part in the city-based study was overweight or obese, and one in 12 had high blood pressure.

While physical activity is only one piece of the obesity jigsaw, Dr Janas Harrington, a lecturer at UCC's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, says that, in terms of public health, small, sustainable steps, such as making the most of breaks in the school yard every day and bursts of in-classroom activity, are what's important. She would love to see more time and resources given to PE but acknowledges that this is less likely to be achieved.

Action for Life 2 is a very well-thought-out programme designed to make the most of the two half-hour PE classes that most primary-school children get, explains IHF tutor Sheila O’Sullivan. “It is maximising all the potential benefits for fitness and health and physical education.”

Gymnastics and dance are the main themes but a lot of games are included as well. And it delivers a lot in the limited time available, she says, cutting out idle moments. “They are moving all the time and, if they’re not moving, [if they’re] working in twos or whatever, they are needing a break because it’s high intensity.”

The level of fitness of the teacher delivering the programme, and the greater the interest he or she has in PE, will undoubtedly contribute to its effectiveness. Of course PE is about much more than energy expended in the class; it is about sowing the seeds for lifelong skills and love of fitness.

“What we really want is active child, active adult,” agrees O’Sullivan. “I am a PE teacher myself and PE has always been lacking in primary schools.”

Up to now, there has been no specialisation in the subject. However, with the extension of primary-teacher training from three to four years, starting this year, specialisation in PE is being offered for the first time at the larger colleges.

As Susan Marron of the Irish Primary PE Association explains: "There is also the option of minor specialists as well, so we are getting a much larger cohort specialising at major and minor level, and we are excited about where it's all going to go when these teachers come out."

It is hoped that those with specialised training will become curriculum leaders at their schools, she says, and may share the PE classes of teachers whose strengths lie elsewhere in, say, music.

The association sees the physical education curriculum as the kernel of what teachers should be teaching, but it welcomes and promotes other activity programmes that support it. “We do value the money they get to develop the resources,” she remarks. But the priority should be quality PE, she stresses. Everything else, such as placing emphasis on break-time activity and integrating PE with other subjects, should stem from there.

O’Sullivan has seen improved fitness and awareness of the importance of physical activity among the primary-school teachers she is training.

“I spot the ones who are tuned in more than others, who go to the gym and so on.” She also sometimes feels sorry for teachers. “There is so much on their plate and they have never specialised in PE,” points out O’Sullivan, who believes it is time for the Department of Education to increase the provision of PE in schools. This was being said 20 years ago but now “it’s compulsory for the health of our country and the health of our children”, she argues. “We have just got to do it.”

Del Pozo, who is a primary school teacher, agrees that a lot more time should be devoted to PE.

“One hour a week just isn’t sufficient – especially for those children whose parents, for whatever reason, cannot provide them with the opportunity to exercise every day,” she says.

The resources provided for PE are also “ridiculous”, she continues. While her school has a hall in which to do PE, it is way too small for the number of children using it, due to the increase in pupil numbers in the past few years.

“We are expected to cover a wide and varied PE curriculum but we are not given the money to buy the resources needed to implement it,” she says. “Some schools have no swimming pool for miles anywhere near them but yet are meant to implement the aquatics strand of the curriculum.”

Teaching first class this year, del Pozo says she does try to get them up and moving around as much as possible, “but it is becoming increasingly difficult as our classes get bigger, as we just have much less physical space in the classroom”.

Last year, as well as using the IHF’s Bizzy Breaks, she also took dance routines from an American website called to get children up and out of their chairs.

“It can be particularly useful on a wet day when they can’t get out to the yard for a run. They really need to burn their energy.”

The enforced sitting that starts in the classroom and increases into adulthood is becoming really problematic, says O’Sullivan. Children certainly shouldn’t sit for longer than an hour at a stretch and she would like to see them do some of their learning while standing. Equally a “no sitting rule” should be the absolute minimum to ensure more active break times, she adds.

Children who like to chat should be encouraged to at least walk – they will then return to the classroom with an increased blood flow to their brain, feeling better and ready to learn.

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Schools get moving for Active Flag

Pupils at St Saviour's National School in Ballybeg, Co Waterford, love getting press-ups or 50 skips to do for homework.

The novel assignments were introduced during the last school year as they worked towards being awarded its first Active Flag, says deputy principal Liz Carroll. The school had been trying to tackle obesity, by promoting healthy lunches and a better lifestyle, when staff heard about a neighbouring school being awarded an Active Flag and decided to work for one themselves.

The most daunting part was getting started, she says, but the fact that the 22-teacher school, with more than 300 pupils, has a young and enthusiastic staff was a huge help. “They would be very much into their fitness and it is great to be able to pass that on to the children,” she says.

The Active Flag, introduced by the Department of Education and Skills in 2009, is awarded to schools that “strive to achieve a physically educated and physically active school community”.

The criteria they are measured on include: the time given to PE; activity levels in the school yard and during classroom breaks; partnership with pupils, parents and the wider community; and, finally, they must organise an Active School Week either during the designated national week, or at a time of their own choosing.

A total of 674 primary and secondary schools now have the blue Active Flag, with about one in five primary schools flying it. With the tag line "more schools, more active, more often", the programme is now looking at how to involve more secondary schools, says its co-ordinator, Karen Cotter.

Feedback from school is always very positive, she says. They like that it is inclusive, doesn’t just focus on sporty kids, and parents are delighted at the changes being made.

Dr Catherine Woods of DCU's School of Health and Human Performance (see panel) is full of praise for the Active School Flag scheme and what it is achieving on its "tiny" annual budget of €125,000 from the Department of Education. (Since 2014, Healthy Ireland has also made a contribution to its work.) "If they doubled or trebled that budget," she adds, "can you imagine the impact it would have?"

At St Saviour’s, Carroll says “it is almost impossible to measure how good it was because it really did reach beyond the boundaries of the school. It gave the parents a great lift.” She believes children’s physical activity has dropped outside school, because of the popularity of Xbox and other technological devices, leaving teachers to take up the slack. “It is a huge challenge but giving exercise as homework helps there,” she adds. Happily for her pupils, they can expect more push-ups in their homework journals in this new school year. See

Active adolescents: Getting Irish teenagers moving

The figures are stark: only 12 per cent of Irish adolescents aged between 12 and 18 years are getting the recommended minimum 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

That was the finding of the Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity Study published in 2010 and there has been no national monitoring to establish whether or not that has changed since.

The study highlighted the drop-off in activity from second year at secondary school onwards, explains its lead author, Dr Catherine Woods of Dublin City University’s School of Health and Human Performance, so a Youth-Physical Activity Towards Health (YPATH) initiative has been devised to tackle that.

The programme is delivered to first-year pupils through the physical education teacher and PE classes “but it targets every teacher and also the parents”, she explains.

It promotes physical activity as opposed to sport performance, telling pupils “we don’t mind what you do, as long as you’re active, and ideally it should be at moderate intensity or greater”.

Evaluation of the piloting of YPATH has shown it significantly increases pupils’ daily physical activity levels, also improves pupils’ gross motor skills, and it is hoped to extend the scheme to m