‘Startling’ drop-off in fitness among Leaving Cert students

Survey finds students have much less interest in physical education during exam years

Recently retired Irish rugby player Sophie Spence said: “Forming the habit of regular exercise at an early age is crucial to maintaining and improving your fitness levels throughout your life.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

Recently retired Irish rugby player Sophie Spence said: “Forming the habit of regular exercise at an early age is crucial to maintaining and improving your fitness levels throughout your life.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

 

A major new study indicates there is a “startling drop-off”in fitness among secondary school students after the Junior Cert.

The results of a study of more than 30,000 students throughout Ireland and a survey of physical education (PE) teachers shows a firm trend towards neglecting fitness in exam years.

More than half (57 per cent ) of PE teachers feel students have less interest in physical activity in exam years, while similar numbers (59 per cent ) believe parents are not interested in how their children progress in this area.

The findings, gathered as part of the Irish Life Health’s 2017 school fitness challenge, are likely to be of concern to parents and policy-makers.

Previous research has shown that Irish 15- to 16-year-olds already show signs of heart disease due to poor fitness, while boys with low levels of fitness had significantly more plaque in the walls of the arteries supplying the brain than very fit boys.

As part of Irish Life Health’s annual fitness challenge, school students undergo an initial fitness test to measure their fitness levels.

They then complete a six-week training programme to improve cardiovascular fitness, followed by a fitness repeat test.

The results for 2017 show girls’ fitness improved at a rate of 16 per cent over the six-week period, compared to 6 per cent in boys.

This boost in cardiorespiratory fitness is proven to significantly lower risk of chronic disease.

‘Continuous surveillance’

Prof Niall Moyna, head of the school of health and human performance at DCU, who oversaw the fitness challenge, said the results were encouraging, but calls for increased analysis of fitness among schoolchildren.

“Continuous surveillance of fitness in children should be mandatory in primary and secondary schools,” he said.

“ The 20-metre shuttle run test has been conducted across 50 countries in six continents and is endorsed by the National Academy of Medicine in the US as an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness.

“We need to take this seriously at a school level in Ireland too, as the challenge results show if the right interventions are made there can be a massive improvement to cardiorespiratory fitness levels in just six weeks.”

Prof Moyna said the move to introduce PE as an examinable subject was an encouraging step.

However, he said, there is still an urgent need for a stand-alone health science curriculum in schools, to teach young people health literacy and the reasons why long-term fitness “is so important to their future health and in preventing them from developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in later life”.

Juggling priorities

On the issue of lower fitness among exam-year students, recently retired Irish rugby player Sophie Spence said it was a sign of the pressure facing young people as they juggle their priorities.

“But there is actually never a better time to learn how to balance your health and work,” she said.

“If you learn how to fit exercise into your day when you are young, this will stand in your stead throughout your working life. Forming the habit of regular exercise at an early age is crucial to maintaining and improving your fitness levels throughout your life.”