'Making PE an examinable subject is not as far-fetched as it sounds'
Teens can become fans of fitness when challenged, writes Edel Coffey
MY MEMORIES of PE class tend towards groups of demotivated teenage girls slinking around draughty gym halls, a sad series of forged sick notes, and violent scuffles on the basketball court. It's not an uncommon experience, but a new survey has revealed that eight-out-of-10 Irish teachers would like to make PE an examinable, core subject on the Junior Cert, which could put an end to sitting on the sidelines.
Aviva Health carried out the research to mark the beginning of its Schools' Fitness Challenge campaign, which it launched last year. The Schools' Fitness Challenge is set up to monitor and challenge the fitness levels of first, second and third year students in Irish schools.
Two-time European champion 400m athlete and 'Celebrity MasterChef' winner David Gillick is supporting the campaign and says his school experience was invaluable to him in discovering his talent as an athlete.
"I was quite fortunate in St Belindus in Kilmacud. We were given the opportunity to do lots of sport, from the very mainstream right through to all sorts of minority sports. I found talents that I didn't know I had."
The Aviva Health Schools' Fitness Challenge has nine different categories, from fittest school to most improved school and prizes include gift vouchers for sports equipment for your school.
The challenge involves a bleep test. No, that's not a challenge to see how many bad words you know but a shuttle test, where students run 20m sprints in ever-decreasing times, denoted by the frequency of a bleep. The more laps they complete, the fitter they are. After taking part in the six-week training programme, the students perform the test again and so improvements are measured.
Last year's results were impressive. Eight thousand students from 219 schools around the country took part and the winning boys' school increased its fitness by 60pc, while the winning girls' school increased fitness levels by 133pc. They're the kind of results most of us new-year joggers can only dream of achieving.
As childhood obesity grows and sedentary pursuits take a front seat in adolescence, encouraging fitness in young people is more important than ever. Motivating teenagers to exercise, however, is notoriously difficult. "As you get older, that's when things hang on to you, things like sugar affect you in later life," says Gillick. "Unfortunately, teenagers are not going to keep fit by themselves. If they go home from school if it's wet outside, they'll just mess around on their smart phones or computer for an hour. It just won't happen if we don't make a point of doing it. You have to put it into the curriculum."
Making PE an examinable subject is not as far-fetched as it sounds, when you consider the career options. "There are multi-million euro industries built on sport now," says Gillick, who has made a career in athletics.
The Schools' Fitness Challenge was developed in DCU by Dr Niall Moyna. "Fitness is one of the best indicators of a person's overall health, and a high level of fitness reduces the risk for major chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and diabetes." Try telling that to a teenager, though.
Dr Sarah Kelly, exercise physiologist and lecturer in Carlow IT, will officially monitor the fitness challenge. She says, "Kids are oblivious to their future health. They're not thinking of cardiovascular disease or cancer. We need to create an awareness when they're young, so we create healthy habits, adopted at a young age, so the likelihood is they will continue these healthy habits into adulthood.
"Introducing PE as a core examinable subject and making it part of the curriculum would help them realise it is as important as the other subjects, and would give it that same status will open people's eyes to realise.
"PE can be too focused on the main sports like GAA, rugby, soccer, and basketball. Those sports are not for everyone. It's about finding ways that will get everyone active and be all-inclusive. That might mean having separate PE classes for different people but the important thing is that everyone is on their feet."
As a phsyiologist, Dr Kelly is aware of the positive impact of physical exercise on the body but there are other accompanying benefits.
"The benefit to the mind is as important as the physical benefit," says Kelly. "The vast majority of teachers recognise that fitness has a benefit on alertness and concentration, and a huge impact on an overall healthy mind. Even if you're just feeling a little down or feeling like you've got to face something difficult, getting outside and getting a bit of exercise can have a positive effect."
Aside from the physical benefits, taking part in sports and fitness can teach children the basis for a whole host of life skills, says Gillick.
"Goals play a big role in what you want to do in sport -- being disciplined, being motivated in what you want to do, and from the corporate world to an individual level, everyone has to set goals at one point or other."
Gillick hopes that students will take part in the challenge because, if they do, they will undoubtedly notice a difference in their performance.
"I would hope that there would be a spin-off effect from doing the challenge. If they enjoy the training, they might get involved with a local running club or they might notice an improvement in their performance in rugby, or even just might notice that they feel energised, or experience the release of endorphins and have better concentration in class."
PE is part of every school curriculum -- what difference would it make if it were to be examined? Again, it all comes back to achieving goals.
"If it's examinable, there's something you're working towards, a goal so to speak. It would be hard to examine people on it and you'd have to figure out what is fair but there has to be an end goal to keep working towards. We have to make more of an effort to get our kids fit.
"I remember as a kid in PE, someone who was overweight would just go in goals. I think we could do more to get those kinds of kids more involved. The heavier kid might be able to throw a shot put further than anyone else in the class and that's the difference between that kid leaving a PE class walking on air and being completely deflated. It's about looking past those things," says Gillick.
Dr Sarah Kelly says: "You don't have to be an elite athlete. Some people are very conscientious and think that training may take away valuable study time, but you don't need to spend long hours training. Just do something for 30 minutes a day to get the heart rate up. The key thing is finding something that you enjoy."
Enter your school for the Aviva Health Schools' Fitness Challenge before January 17 on www.avivaheatlh.ie/fitnesschallenge.