More than a third of 16-year-old girls and nearly half of 16-year-old boys in Ireland are so unfit that they already at risk of poor heart health, according to a major report.
The 2017 Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge, which has been taken by nearly 170,000 young people, has warned that the low fitness levels found in so many threatens the early onset of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
The research, based on data collected during last year’s Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge, overseen by Prof Niall Moyna in Dublin City University has found a steady decline in fitness levels as students’ progress through secondary school.
First year boys should be able to run at least 32 of the 30ft-long shuttle runs, picking up small objects at the end of each, in order to meet minimum fitness levels required for good heart health. First year girls should be able to run at least 15 shuttles.
However, one in five first year boys do not meet minimum fitness levels. Even worse, this number more than doubles by the time the boys have reached 16. Eight per cent of of 12-year-old girls fail minimum standards, but this number rises to 34 per cent four years later.
“The progressive decrease in fitness seen in boys and girls as they progress through post-primary school is alarming and should be a wake-up call for parents, teens and healthcare professionals,” warned Prof Moyna.
However, the head of the School of Health and Human Performance, Centre for Preventive Medicine in DCU said “substantial improvements” can occur after as little as six weeks of regular exercise.
Unfit teenagers benefit most quickly, Prof Moyna said: “I would strongly encourage all students and particularly those who are not physically active or involved in organized sport to give it a go.”
Irish Olympic athlete Thomas Barr warned that many teenagers are going to the gym for weight-training for body-image reasons, but they will not take part in running, or other sports that offer cardiovascular exercise.
“It seems that cardiovascular exercise has almost become uncool with teens, with more of a focus on resistance training. Cardio is amazing for your heart health, your wellbeing, keeping your weight at a healthy level, and it even boosts concentration in school,” he said.
Encouraging secondary school students, Irish rugby player and Kerry county footballer Louise Galvin said she understand that “it can be intimidating to begin a new activity, especially for teens who might feel that they are unfit”.
“However, it can be something as simple as a daily brisk walk, or cycling to school instead of hopping in the car. I find team sports are such as social way to connect with people, but if that isn’t your thing, you could walk in the evenings with a friend, play tennis weekly.”