DERVAL O'ROURKE: We all must stay in the game

Sport is all about keeping score, identifying the winners and losers, and it takes no prisoners.

Well that’s how I’m conditioned to think in the world of high performance sport. The largest ever study of sport and exercise in Ireland was recently published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) called “Keeping Them in the Game: Taking Up and Dropping Out of Sport and Exercise in Ireland”.

It made me step back from high performance and look at sport in a different way. I love high performance sport. I love to compete at the highest level and I love to watch other Irish people take to the world stage in their chosen field but to focus on the few that compete at that level does a disservice to the many who do not.

Of all nations, the USA has won the most Olympic medals and they also have the best facilities, yet as a population they have a massive issue with levels of physical activity. Sedentary lifestyles, a lack of exercise and rising levels of obesity are problems facing most developed countries and the recent report highlights the growing body of evidence linking low levels of physical activity and poor health.

I regularly visit a sports doctor in Germany, a man in his 70s who is one of the healthiest people I have ever met.

One of the first things he said to me was that once you stop moving, in his opinion, you are dead. He believes movement is the key to a healthy life — a message that has always stuck in my head.

As a competitive athlete examining this ESRI research, it’s important to look at society as a whole rather than the world of competitive sport, which is a sideshow — one which brings great entertainment and many moments of joy but is not more important than health and wellbeing.

Having healthy citizens must be seen as more tantamount but a focus on this will inevitably bring more attention to sporting glory across a range of disciplines. Sport and exercise like all healthy habits, usually begins in childhood.

The research suggests almost all children participate in sport in primary school but this drops dramatically in secondary school, as exams appear to be a major barrier to young people remaining active.

During secondary school, I had to justify the hours I was putting into sport, and the message seemed to be that sport was supposed to be secondary to academic success.

I managed to do both and got the points I needed, while finding time for the track. Running was my release and it helped me develop time-management skills from an early age. I left secondary school 13 years ago and surely by now, with a growing obesity problem, the time to introduce physical education as an exam subject is upon us? There needs to be incentives for people at points in their lives when they are vulnerable to drop off from activity.

I believe elite athletes need to engage with children and teenagers but not only to preach about the joys of international success, which by their very nature are outside the reach of most. We need to beat the drum of participation for all. I try to get across the fact that I lose races all the time but that’s okay, it’s great to put yourself out there, enjoy being in the field of play and not win.

I talk to kids about other sports I’ve participated in — before athletics became my main focus, I competed in gymnastics and hockey. Team sports have their merits but can be restrictive in some ways. Ideally both in school and outside school, children would experience a range of team and individual sports, with the hope that something will stick into adulthood.

As the ESRI report shows, most young people are active but from teenage years onwards, this starts to drop off and the level of adults participating in sport weekly can be dwindling.

The report goes on to explore the relationship between physical activity and life transitions.

Combining work commitments and being active can be tough. I see it all the time and it makes me realise I’m privileged to run for a living. Getting time to be active each day is a luxury I’m used too but the Government can also encourage it.

The Bike To Work scheme is a great example of the Government encouraging regular exercise and activity levels. There’s also a tax saver scheme where employers can provide more affordable public transport for employees through travel cards. I wonder is it possible to provide a system that does the same for sports memberships? If participation in physical activity lowers the risk of health problems, this is a win-win for employers, employees and the Government, possibly resulting in lower absenteeism and reduced burden on the healthcare system.

I think different sports came out of the research in varying lights and the fall-off rates of sport in general appears to be elevated as people grow older. Team sports in particular took a hit and I was always drawn to athletics because of its individual approach. I made athletics fit my schedule whether I was in college or working and this is easier when you can train alone, as team sports can be more difficult to plan with an obligation to train with teammates. I also tried swimming recently and I can understand why the research highlights it as a sport with high levels of long-term retention. It’s a great way to stay active on your own terms.

I joined a women’s swim group to rehabilitate after surgery and was delighted to see women in their 80s doing lengths alongside me. I found their commitment to keeping their bodies moving inspiring.

Athletics itself got very little discussion but obviously I think it’s important to draw attention to it, as I believe it has a massive amount to offer. The equipment needed is low, a pair of runners is all that’s required, formal involvement isn’t compulsory, as a walk or jog from your front door constitutes participation and it can add real value to your health.

Athletics clubs offer plenty of options for those who crave more, their fees vary but tend to be extremely reasonable. For children, athletics is a sport that mixes boys and girls, giving them a super base for many other activities. Fit4life is a great initiative run by Athletics Ireland to bring more structure to those who want to get fit with others by walking or jogging. They also run a programme for teenagers to encourage them to be fit.

I’m active in sport because I want to run fast but I can see the bigger picture. We all know being active is good for us but it can be hard to find a way and a time to be active. Hopefully this research can shape new policies and facilitate changes to help everyone live a healthier and happier life.


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