Fighting obesity one run at a time
Concern is growing about the number of Irish children who are overweight. Our reporter talks to teachers about how they are tackling our obesity problem
Childhood obesity has emerged as one of the most alarming public health issues of the 21st century, with one in four Irish children classed as overweight or obese, according to the HSE.
A recent study conducted by Dublin City University (DCU) revealed that unfit teenagers are now at the same risk of heart-related disease as a 60-year-old man. Professor Niall Moyna, head of the DCU School of Health and Human Performance, described the findings as "frightening".
The results of the study of Transition Year students found that most of the unfit pupils were overweight or obese; 85pc had high blood pressure; more than 90pc had high levels of fat in the blood; 62pc were at a high risk of developing diabetes; and 87pc had a vascular age of 55-60.
Schools are attempting to address the problem by tackling inactivity and encouraging young people to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Prof Moyna, well-known for his role in 'Operation Transformation', is creator of the Irish Life Health's Schools' Fitness Challenge, which invites second-level schools to measure their pupils' aerobic fitness, with an initial bleep test.
The schools then complete a six-week programme to improve pupils' cardiovascular fitness, before conducting a repeat test. The challenge is overseen by Prof Moyna and exercise physiologist Dr Sarah Kelly, IT Carlow. The 2016 challenge is up and running.
Outside of the challenge, Prof Moyna hopes schools will continue to encourage students to develop lifelong healthy habits.
"One of the problems we have is about trying to get people to change their behaviour, and my view is why do we not focus on adopting healthy behaviours in the first place so we don't have to change later on?
"We have a disease culture in this country - you don't access the healthcare system unless you're sick. It's very important that we change that mindset and develop a health-based model of healthcare, and part of that is getting people at an early age to adopt healthy behaviours. We want to make it easier for children to pick the healthy option, rather than the unhealthy option."
Prof Moyna argues for a rebranding of physical education (PE) to shift the focus onto health, wellness and physical activity, and suggests introducing a new health science curriculum for Leaving Cert students, combining elements of biology, home economics and PE.
He also wants primary school children to have a minimum of two 10 to 15-minute activity periods each day.
"Kids arrive in second-level schools and a lot of them don't have the basic motor skills to participate in physical education. It's a bit like asking a child to come to second-level not having done any arithmetic, and have them do algebra in first year.
"Many of them can't participate in the class because they don't have the motor skills we used to take for granted just from being physically active, because they're becoming more and more sedentary," he says.
Last year, the first year students from Scoil Chríost Rí Portlaoise, Co Laois, won Fittest Girls' School in the challenge. PE teacher Maria Walsh explains that they achieved this by implementing a running programme, where each of the girls completed a timed run at the start of class each week, choosing between 500m, 1km or 1.5km.
The run was followed by circuit training to boost their muscular strength and endurance, incorporating exercises like star jumps and burpees that students can do at home without any equipment.
"I didn't think they were going to get into it, because when we did the bleep test the first day, they were wrecked, so I thought it might be a disaster and make them start hating PE.
"But, the second time we did the run, the girls were coming up to me and asking their times, so they'd be saying 'I improved by five seconds!' It was about creating a positive environment around it, so the more tired they were after a run, the better it was," she says.
"They could do as many laps as they wanted and, towards the end, some girls wanted to do more. That was the most satisfying for me, seeing their results and how proud of themselves they were," she adds, noting that a number of the students had dropped up to 35 seconds between weeks one and four.
Ms Walsh observes that it can be more difficult to engage female students, as they tend to lose interest in sport as they reach their mid-teens.
Many students at Scoil Chríost Rí take part in sport during and outside of school hours, with camogie, soccer and basketball proving most popular.
But Ms Walsh says it's important to offer options for pupils who don't enjoy team sports and that the fitness challenge was "brilliant" for such students.
" It was an individual goal, so they weren't running together, they were only beating their own score. They were pushing themselves all the time. It can be hard for girls if they are self-conscious, they won't want to compete, but they were only competing against themselves.
"I try to stay away from team sports in PE because you'd find that five or six girls would dominate, and that's unfair on others. On the PE curriculum, invasion games is one strand out of six, and that's all your team sports. The others - dance, gymnastics, aquatics, athletics, outdoor and adventure - are all very individual.
"Traditionally, teachers throw in a ball and it's invasion games straight away, and that cuts out all the kids who aren't into contact sport. The idea is to cover all the strands and give people a chance to find what they like and to enjoy it."
While schools undoubtedly have a role to play in addressing the obesity epidemic, Prof Moyna maintains that they shouldn't be left to carry the burden alone.
"We tend to think that the schools have all the time and the capacity to change all the ills of society, and I think that's a little bit unfair.
"Children do spend the majority of their time in school, but they spend a lot of time at home as well, and we tend to think the school has the manpower and the resources to solve all these problems."
Notwithstanding, he says schools are becoming much more aware of physical and mental health. "For too long, the focus has been purely on points, and achieving academic excellence, but I think the most important thing a child leaves school with is their health."
The Schools' Fitness Challenge requires schools to submit results when they have completed the challenge, with the final bleep test submission date being December 16.
'It's hard to get them off their phones, but they pushed themselves harder and everyone improved'
Tullamore College, Co Offaly, was awarded Most Improved School in last year's Schools' Fitness Challenge.
PE teacher Áine Brady explains that, beforehand, students had been doing circuit training, aerobics and step aerobics in class, but for the six-week period, she added a running programme.
Students from first through third year were split into groups based on their fitness and completed a run around the local park twice a week. She also gave her students pedometers and set goals to reach 10,000 daily steps.
"It creates a bit of a buzz. Everyone is trying to improve their fitness, even if it's only by a little bit; everybody does their best," she says.
She is aware of the temptations for students to become increasingly sedentary. "You'll have the sporty ones who go off to training in the evenings, but the others are mad into their PlayStations, their computer games and their phones. It's hard to get them to snap out of the habit and get them out for a walk.
"There are some kids who don't want to do it at all, but I say to them, 'Don't worry about anyone else's score, all I want you to do is beat your own score.' They were happy to go along with that, they pushed themselves harder, and everyone did improve over the six weeks."
This year, she is adding athletics and cross-country training to the standard PE programme.