Coghlan proposes 'fitness for life'


Independent Senator and former world record-holding athlete Eamonn Coghlan is to bring a proposal to the Government to make physical fitness for children and young people a core part of their lives and the school curriculum.

Mr Coghlan and fellow Independent Senators proposed a motion before the House this week which recognised that effective health awareness and physical fitness programme in both primary and secondary schools was “essential for the overall well-being of children”.

Speaking to the motion, Mr Coghlan noted that while there was a new physical education curriculum in place at primary school level since 1999, it was not being implemented in full in 65 per cent of schools.

Mr Coghlan based the figures on responses from 37 schools to a questionnaire he sent to 150 primary and secondary schools in September. Some 35 of 171 schools contacted by letter also attended focus groups.

The Senator said that of the schools who said they were not implementing the physical education curriculum in full, 54 per cent of them cited lack of facilities and 11 per cent cited pressure of time due to competition with other subjects.

Citing figures from other studies, Mr Coghlan noted that overweight and obesity was a serious problem in Ireland and that between 18 per cent and 27 per cent of Irish children were overweight or obese, according to 2007 figures from the Irish Heart Foundation.

The Senator welcomed the presence of Minister for Health James Reilly in the chamber during the debate and said he considered it a “personal endorsement” of the motion.

“Our young people are dangerously on the cusp of becoming a lost generation. We are facing a tsunami of inactivity and ill-health. It is our collective responsibility to do something urgently about it right now and I hope that we will do it before it is too late,” Mr Coghlan said.

He said his own generation had been “naturally fit” as a result of an environment where children were outdoors to play sports, to run and to kick ball.

"We did it all for fun and we were naturally fit as a result. Sadly aspects of society have changed for the worse. In general we have lost our sense of adventure and understanding of the importance of proper physical activity," he added.

"Instead, we have inherited the Internet, the PlayStation, Nintendo, Facebook and so much more convenience at our fingertips that one does not have to leave the comforts of home to communicate, seek food or friends."

He said that "shockingly", children could not even enjoy the pleasure of running in a school yard because of insurance issues.

“What is society coming to? I believe that we must start to teach our children from a young age in a more effective, compulsory, structured and monitored physical fitness learning environment.”

He said the current physical education system was “too sophisticated, passive and broad to tackle the serious health problems we face as a nation

“It needs to be simplified, interesting, challenging, rewarding and to be fun. It needs specific goals based quality exercise rather than quantity and the results need evaluation on an ongoing basis just like other core subjects in numeracy and literacy skills on the school curriculum.”

His plan, he said was not about sports participation, but about learning, participating and understanding the value of fitness for life and, “more important, gaining points for life as opposed to gaining points for college”.

“From my own experience, improving one's physical fitness is not rocket science. It just requires a little common sense and discipline. It also requires the utilisation of existing structures and not large budgets. It needs bundles of determination, not cash.”

He set out a number of short-, medium- and long-term goals, including the establishment of a working committee, securing cross-departmental cooperation, and the establishment of structured exercise programmes for 15 minutes every day.

He said these should include structured cardiovascular exercises, including speed walking, running, skipping or even using a hula hoop because of its cardiovascular benefits.

A fitness diary or homework book for school children should also be introduced.

He suggested as a medium-term goal the employment of “fitness interns” as classroom assistants under the State’s Job Bridge programme.

His long-term goals were to improve the health of the next generation, reduce the financial burden on the Department of Health, and for Ireland to be a role model in health education in schools.