Fitness levels among students from age 15 onwards are declining significantly, especially among girls, according to latest studies. Photograph: iStock
The largest national longitudinal study on the health of secondary school children in Ireland contains some alarming findings. Fitness levels among students from age 15 are declining significantly, especially among girls. The lead author of the study has also warned that the cardiovascular health of some inactive transition year students is comparable to 55-60 year-old adults. Boys with low fitness levels were found to have significantly more plaque on the walls of their arteries compared to very fit boys.
This is storing up massive and expensive health problems in the future. As it stands, we spend the vast bulk of our health budget on managing diseases which, in many cases, are preventable through better fitness and positive lifestyle choices. These problems look set to soar in terms of scale and cost if we do not take action now
The introduction of PE as a Leaving Cert subject for the first time is an encouraging step, but much greater change is needed
There are encouraging findings in the study. Researchers have found small steps such as a six-week fitness programme can increase fitness levels by an average of 10 per cent. A key reason why many young people give up sport or fitness is pressure linked to maximising CAO points in the Leaving Certificate. However, international studies show cardiovascular health is linked to positive mental health and academic performance.
If we are to turn these worrying health trends around, we will need greater leadership from policymakers, schools and parents. The introduction of PE as a Leaving Cert subject for the first time is an encouraging step, but much greater change is needed. Many schools still do not have sports halls, which are vital if we are serious about boosting physical activity. There also needs to be a meaningful choice of activities to ensure PE has something to offer most students. The establishment of a health science curriculum in school, which would teach young people health literacy, is also worthy of serious consideration.
Teaching young people how to fit exercise into their day from a young age is vital and will stand them in good stead throughout their lives. Ensuring PE takes centre-stage in the school curriculum can only be a move in the right direction.