Why teenage girls’ fitness is exercising the experts
‘What’s wrong with having a girl put in earphones once or twice a week and go walking for 45 minutes?’
Prof Moyna thinks the change should start with how health is taught at primary level with classes which also cover health and wellness issues.
Primary schools should teach daily classes, covering not just physical education, but also health and wellness topics, according to a leading expert on health.
Prof Moyna of Dublin City University’s school of health and human performance, says there was a “tremendous” fitness drop-off in girls after 6th class. In fact, a recent countrywide fitness challenge in schools found that the average 16-year-old girl did no better in fitness tests than a 12-year-old.
However, boys’ fitness improved by an average of 33 per cent over the same years.
Prof Moyna who set up the challenge, says parents and educators need to get to girls early, before they form unhealthy habit. “The hardest thing in the world to do is change a behaviour, and diets are a classic example. To get someone to change a behaviour and maintain that change is almost impossible,” he says.
“Most obese children will probably be obese as adults. If we can change the thinking and get children to adopt healthy behaviours, then it will become the norm.”
To remedy this, Prof thinks both the perception and delivery of physical education in schools needs to shift.
“What’s wrong with having a girl put in earphones once or twice a week and go walking for 45 minutes?” Fitness classes in schools “should be a little more innovative”.
Prof Donal O’Shea, co-chair of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland obesity policy group, agrees.
He says “the real nut we have to crack” in schools is the association between physical education and competitive sports. He says that, if they are not interested in team sports, teenage girls should be encouraged to do things like cycle to school and go hillwalking.
“It needs to be enjoyable,” he says, adding that it also needs to be prioritised, both at school and at home. Until it is, “nothing will change”.
“It’s a big culture change, but given the health consequences of physical inactivity and obesity, we cannot afford not to drive this change,” he says.
Prof Moyna thinks the change should start with how health is taught at primary level with classes which also cover health and wellness issues. He believes it should continue into secondary school with a new, assessed Leaving Certificate course in health science.
“Physical education is dead,” he says.
The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) says another factor that has an impact on girls’ accessing physical education at school is the “overcrowded curriculum”.
“There is a noticeable decrease in the take-up of PE in 5th and 6th year as students prepare for the Leaving Cert examination,” said ASTI assistant general secretary Moira Leydon.
But she said many schools are implementing strategies to ensure students stay involved in both physical education and other physical activities.
“Anecdotally, what we’d hear from schools is that diversity in terms of the range of activities available is very important for girls. For example, we know of girls’ schools now offering things like yoga and pilates…Schools are trying to deliver that in the middle of cutbacks,” said a spokeswoman for ASTI.