The latest findings from Dublin City University and Irish Life Health indicate that 34% of girls and 41% of boys aged 16 do not meet the minimum level of fitness needed for optimal heart health. These low levels of fitness increase the risk of developing other 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, DCU, also reveals a steady decline in fitness levels as students progress through secondary school.
One in five (19%) first year boys don’t meet the minimum fitness levels required for good heart health, with this number more than doubling to two in five (41%) at the age of 16.
Eight per cent of 12-year-old girls do not meet the minimum requirement for good heart health, increasing to a third (34%) at the age of 16.
First year boys should be able to run at least 32 shuttles in order to meet minimum fitness levels required for good heart health, and first year girls should be able to run at least 15 shuttles.
The researchers say the good news was that the fitness decline was not inevitable, and improvements could be made in a matter of weeks.
Over 30,000 students participated in the six-week Irish Life Health School Fitness Challenge last year, and first year students saw an average 8-10% improvement in their fitness levels. The biggest improvement was seen in at-risk, low-fit teenagers, further demonstrating the importance of early intervention for Irish teenagers.
The Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge is the largest fitness study of its kind in Ireland, and now the third largest in the world. Now in its seventh year, over 172,000 children have taken part. With a focus on preventive and proactive healthcare, it aims to show that small steps, through a six-week challenge, can make real, impactful changes to fitness levels.
They say the low level of fitness among post-primary school students is linked to the decline in physical activity levels “This is a worrying trend as it’s documented that sedentary childhood behaviours track into adulthood and furthermore, as physical activity declines, time spent engaged in sedentary behaviours increases.
Olympian ambassador Thomas Barr has endorsed participation in the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge since 2016. He says: “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. It doesn’t take much to see an improvement, so I’d call on all secondary school students around the country to get involved with the Challenge and embrace the benefits of cardio.”