REGULAR exercise reverses the body clock by 14 years, a report on sporting activity in Ireland has revealed.
Even playing sport in the past is good for a person’s current health — it is the equivalent, in health terms, to being three years younger.
And the report by the Economic and Social Research Board and the Irish Sports Council argues that is wrong to blame a fall-off in the take-up of sport and recreational exercise for Ireland’s overweight and obesity problems.
The study, Sporting Lives, found that the number of people playing sport in Ireland has increased dramatically, particularly in the past 20 years.
It points out that nowadays children are two-thirds more likely to be active than their parents were.
All the evidence suggests an increase in sport-related activity is contributing to significant improvements in health for many adults, the report says.
“What we are seeing is that more people are playing sport than ever before and that is good news for us,” said the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, John Treacy, at the launch of the report in Dublin yesterday.
“It is never too late to take up a sport and you do enjoy the benefits straight away,” he pointed out.
The report also highlights the gradual decline of Gaelic games over several decades and the rapid rise of individual sports.
It found that people are more involved in personal exercise activities, such as going to the gym, aerobics, swimming and jogging.
It also found that the fall-off in sporting activity in the late teens and on into adulthood is almost entirely due to people dropping out of team sports.
But schools are not largely responsible for the fall-off in Gaelic games, the report points out. Outside of school hours, more children got involved in soccer and swimming while the number playing Gaelic games fell.
The report found that hurling/camogie fared better than Gaelic football in managing to maintain, or marginally increasing participation.
Individual sports, however, are played much later into adulthood and the proportion playing them does not decline much with age, if at all. The data source used for the study is the 2003 Survey of Sport and Physical Exercise, a very detailed survey of the sporting activities of just over 3,000 adults.
The findings also defy the simple explanation that girls are less interested in sport because their behaviour as adults is not consistent with this.
But treating girls differently opens up a sporting gender gap that never closes, the report warns.
Young girls must be given the same sporting opportunities and encouragement as young boys, it urges.
And the range of sports offered to girls at second-level, particularly individual sports, needed to be improved.
The report also found that social disadvantage affected the amount of sport played by children well before the age of 10.
It claimed there was a strong case for redirecting greater resources to schools and sports clubs that welcome and attract young children from less well-off backgrounds.
The study also found that the relationship between high educational attainment and playing sport also began before the age of 10, suggesting that the parents’ education has a strong influence on the sport played by young children.
The report’s co-author, Prof Richard Layte, pointed out that people who started playing sport before the age of 20 were more likely to play more sport as older adults.
And, he said, sport was good for the mind as well as the body. “People playing sport have lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression,” he pointed out.
Prof Layte said more people were engaging in individual sports because they fitted more easily into their routines and lifestyles.
The report warns, however, that there is a real danger that Irish sports policy remains stuck in a former era and fails to adopt to an Ireland in which people’s expectations of maintaining higher degrees of health and fitness throughout their lives have changed.
* Young adults playing more sports than older adults did when they were younger.
* More people involved in solo sports than team ones with three-quarters of all adults involved in individual activities.
* Sports participation peaks at age 15, largely due to adolescents giving up team sports.
* Strong gender and socio-economic gaps in participation.
* The impact of social disadvantage starts young but continues to widen in adulthood.
* People who participate in sport and exercise throughout their lives experience better mental and physical health.
* Greater support needed for individual activities in terms of affordability and access.
* Need to work with primary schools and sports clubs to ensure that young girls are given the same sporting opportunities and encouragement as young boys.
* Impact of social disadvantage on sports participation needs to be tackled.
* Way must be found to channel a larger share of funding to newer sporting enterprises and to growing ones in particular.
* Up to age 10 boys play more sport and a large gender gap in participation opens up.
* The gender gap closes at second level as more girls take up sport but is short lived because the appeal of team sport fades.
* By age 20, 66% of men are playing sports compared to 36% of women.
* Sport take-up and drop-up rate is the same for both sexes as adults, suggesting that women are as interested in sport as men if given the same opportunities.
* Both Gaelic football and hurling/camogie suffered a decline in popularity but soccer climbed significantly.
* Golf experienced a sudden jump in popularity in the late 1990s, reflecting the sharp rise in personal incomes during that time, coupled with greater investment in golf courses.
* Cycling is the only individual sport that did not experience a rise in popularity over the past two decades.
* High proportion of people swimming regularly with sharp increase at the turn of the millennium likely to have tapered off since.
* Aerobics/keep-fit and jogging all experienced a strong increase in participation from a low base in 1984.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved