Aviva Schools Fitness ChallengeThe Health Service has dominated the news over recent days because of overcrowding but any fixes are likely to be short term unless we radically change the perception of what fitness is all about.

That is the lesson to be drawn from speaking to DCU Professor Niall Moyna at yesterday’s launch of the Aviva Schools Challenge for 2015


“This is about showing what a six week intervention can do but the real wins will come with longer term change,” he said.  “Last year on a base of 13,000 students we saw an average increase in fitness levels of 30%.  This shows that small changes to how we ask our children to move and be active can make a big difference.”

The bleep test is one where children from first year through to Transition Year are tested at the start of a campaign in a bleep test that involves shuttle runs of 20 metres.

They then engage with a fitness programme and are tested again at the end.

National Standard

“We should be putting in a national standard that boys can do 100 shuttles and girls 70.”  This does not mean they will be running at the Olympics or playing in an All Ireland final but the difference to health between low and moderate fitness is substantial.”

“Much more so in fact than the difference between moderate and high fitness levels.”

The fact that the launch of the challenge was taking place in the Aviva Stadium, a monument to elite sport indicates our national relationship with sport, that it is something primarily to be watched and enjoyed at an elite level and Moyna believes this is exacerbated by the structure in schools.

“We should abolish PE and Biology and create a life science course instead that shows children at an age when they will take on board the lessons how what we do impacts on what our health is and will be in the future.”


“The impact of this will have an impact in the general health of the population over 10-15 years and we need bold leadership to make the change now even if the win will not be seen for three electoral cycles.”

At least we currently have a Health Minister who is nearly 30 years younger than the present Taoiseach and of a stage in his political career when long term change could still be seen as having a material personal benefit.

That he is also committed to sport and that his successor in that brief at cabinet level is also just turned 40 suggests some hope but the danger is that Health is always seen as a firefighting exercise.

“We have a health service where everything is channelled towards making you better after you become sick,” added Moyna.  “Nothing is done about primary prevention of that illness in the first place and until that changes, nothing will change.”

“If we begin to train our physicians differently and create a culture where sport and fitness are for all rather than the elite then we will be taking the first steps to an overall healthier nation.”


We believe that requires a greater level of coordination between how children are taught and encouraged to be physically active.  Moyna suggests that we need dedicated teachers in primary school to take on physical activity.

They could build an awareness of how to be active, how to move and how often.  At secondary level that switch to a science of how we live would combine the how with the why and create a cohort of pupils leaving school which will be better aware, at a  deeper level of how they can take control of their own fitness.

The success and popularity of interventions like Operation Transformation are largely based on middle aged and overweight people realising they need to atone for the mistakes of the past.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could make those mistakes themselves a thing of the past.

The Schools’ Fitness Challenge has grown year on year; 2014 saw a total of 13,067 students (7,242 boys and 5,825 girls) from 26 counties across Ireland successfully complete the challenge. The target this year is to increase that number to over 15,000 and  teachers can register for the Challenge at www.avivahealth.ie/fitnesschallenge by Saturday, 17th January.


They will receive a step-by-step guide to participation and a CD with the bleep test. Teachers must conduct an initial fitness test to measure the current level of fitness of their students and these results should be submitted by Saturday, 24th January. The teachers then undertake a six week training programme with their students to improve their cardiovascular fitness, after which the students complete a repeat fitness test to measure the improvement.

“At Aviva Health, we are delighted to continue to support the Schools’ Fitness Challenge which is now in its 3rd year. For the first time the Schools’ Fitness Challenge is open to Transition Year students as well as to 1st, 2nd, 3rd year secondary school students across the country,” said James Parker, CEO of Aviva Health.

“At a time when chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease are on the increase, initiatives such as this are extremely important in improving fitness levels and helping to establish positive long-term behavioural change to improve our nation’s fitness.”

There are prizes from Elverys Sports in eight categories for the most improved and fittest boys, girls and mixed schools. Every PE teacher whose class completes the challenge will be entered into a draw to win a €500 Elverys Sports voucher.
Aviva Health’s Schools’ Fitness Challenge is sponsored by Aviva Health Insurance. It was developed by Dublin City University and the Wellness Economic Initiative Alliance and is supported by Elverys Sports.

Read more from the launch and our interview with Sarah Lavin on Girls and Boys in sport

Image credit: Inpho.ie