Why fitness must be on par with maths and science in schools

A LEADING health academic has said children’s fitness levels should be assessed at the beginning and end of each school year and given the same priority as maths and science.

Professor Niall Moyna of the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU was speaking following publication of results of the Aviva Health’s Schools Fitness Challenge, which saw 219 secondary schools from 24 counties make physical fitness a priority over a six-week period.

More than 8,000 first and second year students completed the challenge, having upped their exercise activity over the six weeks. Oaklands Community College in Edenderry was named ‘Ireland’s Fittest School’, having completed an average of 89 shuttle runs. Students reached fitness goals by doing 20 minutes of aerobic activity at the start of every PE class, partaking in extra physical exercise during mid-term break and going for walks and runs along the canal.

Abbey CBS, Tipperary, was named ‘Most Improved School’, completing an average of 51 shuttle runs pre-training and 82 shuttle runs post-training, representing a 60% increase in fitness levels.

“It was fantastic to see such large improvement in fitness after just six weeks,” says Dr Sarah Kelly from DCU’s School of Health and Performance, who monitored the challenge.

But Kelly describes as “quite scary” the fact that boys’ fitness levels were 60% higher than those of girls at the end of the campaign. Post-training, boys completed an average of 62 shuttle runs compared with girls’ low average of 38 shuttle runs.

The explanation’s likely to be complex, says Kelly, attributing it partly to boys being more likely to participate in team sports.

“Large numbers of girls seem to shy away from physically exerting themselves during PE.”

Kelly acknowledged that some girls can suffer severe menstrual cramps, which might necessitate them opting out of PE on a given day, but she urged parents not to give girls the message that they should be sedentary during their periods.

Professor Moyna says children should be educated about what physical activity does physiologically to their heart and lungs, so there’s clear understanding of how the body responds to exercise.


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