The Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge has seen a surge in interest from girls and the biggest number of students ever tested.
The 2017 Challenge was undertaken by over 30,000 students in secondary schools across the country, a 30 percent increase on the same study from the year before.
This is the first year more girls participated than boys, possibly a very positive outcome from the growing strength and visibility of Women’s sport at the elite level.
It is not just in quantity but in the quality of the tests that girls have had a good year with an average improvement in the fitness of 16 percent over the six weeks of the programme as opposed to a six percent increase for boys.
Now in its sixth year, over 172,000 children in total have participated in the Challenge, making this the third largest fitness study of its kind in the world.
The Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge is overseen by Professor Niall Moyna, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU. It analyses shuttle run performance, which is recognised as an “excellent tool” to screen youth fitness levels.
The rise in the numbers willing to be tested and the improvements they show are a major positive but there is a threat in the steep fall in the numbers taking part beyond Junior Cert and especially among those studying for their Leaving Certificate exams.
Read our Exclusive Interview with Irish Life Health Managing Director Jim Dowdall on the importance of sport to his company.
It is to be hoped that an initial pilot programme bringing physical education onto the Leaving Cert Curriculum will change the damaging feeling expressed by some that it has to be either study or sport when it comes to this stage. In fact, all the evidence points to better performance among those who remain physically active throughout the period of intense study that is required.
A trend towards neglecting fitness in exam years was also identified in a recent Irish Life Health survey with PE teachers. The survey revealed that more than half, 57 percent of PE teachers feel students have less interest in PE in exam years, and 59 percent believe parents are not interested in how their children are doing in PE.
“We know children are under pressure to juggle priorities in exam years and as they progress towards Leaving Cert, but there is actually never a better time to learn how to balance your health and work,” said recently retired Irish Rugby International Sophie Spence who is now building a business offering Rugby camps for girls at this age.
“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.”
“Continuous surveillance of fitness in children should be mandatory in primary and secondary schools,” said Moyna.
“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.”
“There is nothing more important to an individual than their health and the introduction of PE as an examinable subject this year is an important first step.”
“However, 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.”
This year’s winning schools form St McCartans in Monaghan, Alexandra College in Dublin and Gort Community School in Galway were present at Croke Park yterday to meet long time supporter of the challenge Thomas Barr and Spence.
Both St McCartans, where GAA Director General Paraic Duffy is a former principal and Alexandra College were winning the Boys and Girls awards for the second year running.