Boys in secondary schools ‘42% fitter than girls’, study suggests

Research for health insurer involved more than 22,000 students all over Ireland

Prof Niall Moyna of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at Dublin City University. “We should move away from the rigidity of the current PE curriculum to short periods of physical activity that encourage senior-cycle students, particularly girls, to stay active.” Photograph: Declan Roughan/©INPHO/Presseye

Prof Niall Moyna of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at Dublin City University. “We should move away from the rigidity of the current PE curriculum to short periods of physical activity that encourage senior-cycle students, particularly girls, to stay active.” Photograph: Declan Roughan/©INPHO/Presseye

 

Boys in Irish secondary schools are 42 per cent fitter than girls and the gender gap in fitness levels widens as they get older, a new study of more than 22,000 students suggests. Some 10,935 girls and 11,828 boys took part in a fitness challenge last year, with more than a quarter of secondary schools signed up.

The research for the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge suggested girls in Ireland were less likely than boys to meet the minimum current physical activity recommendations for optimal health. “Worryingly, the gender gap widens as boys and girls progress through school; in fourth year, boys are 42 per cent fitter than girls, as opposed to first-year boys being 32 per cent fitter than girls,” the researchers said.

They said students experienced a significant improvement in their fitness levels after just six weeks of exercise training, with first-year boys (+11 per cent) and fourth-year girls (+14 per cent) showing the biggest improvement levels overall.

Mathew O’Leary from Bunclody Vocational School, Wexford, and Louise O’Dowd from Presentation Secondary School, Milltown, Kerry, were awarded overall fittest boy and girl in the programme.

More than 120,000 students have participated in the research since 2012.

The programme was overseen by Prof Niall Moyna of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at Dublin City University. “We should move away from the rigidity of the current PE curriculum to short periods of physical activity that encourage senior-cycle students, particularly girls, to stay active,” he said. “The new Junior Certificate PE curriculum is a paradigm shift that is long overdue and, if properly resourced, has the potential to have a profoundly positive impact on the current and future health of Irish teenagers.”

Dr Kate Kirby, head of performance psychology at the Irish Institute of Sport, said the findings proved that significant fitness gains could be made in a relatively short period of time, thereby increasing the schoolgirls’ confidence and motivation.

A report entitled Gender in Sport published by the European Institute of Gender Equality last week said a number of practical barriers to women’s participation in sport still existed. “Gender inequalities are evident across the sports sector, from representation at decision-making levels and media coverage, to participation in sports activities, including coaching,” it said.

EIGE, the EU’s “knowledge centre” on gender equality, said establishing gender equality in sports policy would involve action in a number of areas. “Sport is traditionally associated with ‘masculine’ characteristics, such as physical strength and resilience, speed and a highly competitive, sometimes confrontational spirit,” the report said, but it could also be used as a means to achieve gender equality through the establishment of general values such as fair play, non-discrimination and teamwork.

“Sport can give women and girls access to public spaces where they can gather, develop new skills, gain support from others and enjoy freedom of expression and movement. It can promote education, communication, negotiation skills and leadership, all of which are essential to women’s empowerment.”