Childhood obesity: Many 12-year-olds now unable to jump, throw or catch a ball
Most school-age children are out of shape and need more exercise, studies find
Elaine Wyllie, founder of The Daily Mile, with pupils from St Brigid’s National School in Castleknock, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Teachers and health experts say they have witnessed a worrying deterioration in children’s physical and motor skills over the past decade or more.
Research by University College Cork indicates that skills which were generally mastered by six-year-olds – such as jumping, throwing, catching or hitting any type of sports ball – are now out of reach for many children by the time they reach 12 or 13.
At second level, Prof Niall Moyna of Dublin City University has found that the cardiovascular health of some inactive 15-year-olds is comparable to that of 55 to 60-year-olds, with significantly more plaque on the walls of their arteries.
The findings back up recent studies which indicate the vast majority of teens are badly out of shape and not getting anywhere near the level of exercise they need.
Just 12 per cent of teenagers in secondary schools are meeting Department of Health recommendations of at least 60 minutes daily of “moderate to vigorous physical activity”, according to the latest study. This, in turn, is raising the risk of childhood obesity and associated illnesses such as diabetes.
So, what is driving such dramatic changes?
It is little surprise that most experts point towards one main culprit: electronic devices.
Where once children might have kicked a ball or hopped, skipped and jumped, now they are absorbed for hours with smartphone or iPads.
Sedentary lifestyles, poor diet and limited opportunities for play and games are among the key factors cited as contributing to this problem.
In addition, research indicates that most children are getting less active the older they get, with many neglecting fitness in the run-up to the Leaving Certificate and the growing obsession with securing enough CAO points.
So how can schools, parents and young people themselves begin to tackle what some describe as a major public health epidemic?
The Department of Education points to development of subjects at primary and second level which cover the areas of healthy eating, such as PE and Social, Personal and Health Education.
There is also the Food Dudes programme, being rolled out on a national basis to all primary schools, aimed at increasing children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables.
But many initiatives showing promising results are happening without the State’s involvement.
The “Daily Mile” is growing in popularity: children run for a 15-minute period, often at the start of school. Schools say it is boosting fitness – and concentration levels – among children.
The introduction of PE as a Leaving Certificate subject on the senior cycle this year is seen by many as an encouraging first step. It will attract CAO points in the same way as any other subject and provide a greater incentive for students not to give up physical activity.
Most public health experts say educating parents is a crucial part of the jigsaw.
They say parents must ensure that children eat the right amount of fruits and vegetables, fewer calorie-rich snacks, need to be tuned in to opportunities for physical activity and set hard-and-fast rules about time spent on screens or TV.