Teens fail to hit minimum levels of fitness, raising long-term health concerns

Prof Niall Moyna: "We really can’t ignore the fact that more than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are now at risk of developing premature cardiovascular disease."

Teenagers are failing to reach the minimum fitness levels required for good heart health, exposing themselves to developing chronic disease.

Research taken from the Irish Health Schools Fitness Challenge 2017 found that more than one third of 16-year-old girls and two in five 16-year-old boys do not meet the fitness levels that can help prevent diseases, such as high blood pressure and type two diabetes, from developing.

The research reveals a steady decline in fitness levels as students progress through secondary school, rising from one in five first-year boys failing to meet minimum fitness levels to two in five (41%) by the age of 16.

For girls, the figure rises from 8% among 12-year-olds to 34% at the age of 16.

Niall Moyna, who oversaw the research, described as “alarming” the decline in fitness among teenagers as they progress through post-primary education.

Prof Moyna, head of the School of Health and Human Performance, Centre for Preventive Medicine, in Dublin City University (DCU), said the findings should act as “a wake-up call for parents, teens, and healthcare professionals”.

We really can’t ignore the fact that more than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are now at risk of developing premature cardiovascular disease,” said Prof Moyna.

Previous studies have shown that a low level of fitness among post-primary school students is linked to a decline in physical activity levels.

Studies have also shown that sedentary childhood behaviours track into adulthood and that, as physical activity declines, the amount of time spent engaged in sedentary behaviours increases.

The good news is that “substantial improvements” can occur after as little as six weeks of regular exercise, with low-fitness teens benefiting the most, said Prof Moyna.

More than 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, demonstrating the importance of early intervention.

Olympic athlete Thomas Barr, who has endorsed participation in the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge since 2016, said that cardiovascular exercise “has almost become uncool with teens” and that their focus tends to be 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.

Barr, who recently won bronze for Ireland in the European Athletics Championships in Berlin, grabbing third place in the men’s 400m hurdles final, said he was calling on secondary school students around the country to get involved with the challenge and embrace the benefits of cardio.

Thomas Barr
Thomas Barr

The Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge is the largest fitness study of its kind in Ireland, and the third largest in the world. Now in its seventh year, more than 172,000 children have taken part.

- Registration is now open for the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge and is open to all secondary school students around the country. PE teachers across the country can register for the challenge at irishlifehealth.ie/fitnesschallenge/ by September 21

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