Teens who keep fit will reap benefits in their 50s
Keeping active in your younger years can prevent heart attacks later in life, writes Áilín Quinlan
If you're looking for Sean White, it's best to try the gym or the pitch – because most evenings, the teenager is to be found at one or the other.
The 18-year-old plays U-21 football for Cork, and junior and U-21 hurling for his hometown of Clonakilty. His training schedule is proportionately heavy.
During the season he'll train up to six nights a week – and that's on top of playing matches.
"You have to be very fit to stay on the team – there's a lot of competition for places," he explains.
White has been playing sport since childhood. He's one of thousands of adolescents – male and female – for whom physical fitness is part of daily life.
It's a mindset that can bring good long-term benefits, according to new Swedish research.
A study carried out at Umea University has found a link between a person's fitness as a teenager and their risk of heart attack in later life. In a study of nearly 750,000 men, researchers found that the more aerobically fit men were in late adolescence, the less likely they were to have a heart attack in their late 40s or 50s.
Research leader Professor Peter Nordstrom emphasised that the study found it was even better to be both fit and a normal weight.
That's good news for White and others who have been deeply involved in sports since childhood, but he points out there are more immediate benefits to be enjoyed by young people participating in sports.
"Sports is great for helping you to deal with stress and pressure. I played up to two weeks before the Leaving Cert. It gives your head a great break," he says.
"You make a lot of friends and it's very good for your confidence."
It also, he says, teaches some pretty good life skills. "When you're winning, you're motivated to keep going, and winning builds your confidence. But sports also teaches you how to lose and keep going."
Playing competitively also brings awareness of the impact on performance of diet and lifestyle.
"If you eat really bad food and stay out half the night, you won't keep up with the team," he says simply.
And sport also inculcates a sense of commitment and responsibility towards others.
"You have to turn up even if you're injured or the weather is very bad. There's good self-discipline involved – you have to be committed to train."
Out on the pitch, White can see solid evidence of the long-term lifestyle benefits for those who stay in sport.
"We're training with the senior team – they'd be 36 or 37, or going on 40, and they are very fit people. So it's obviously a lifestyle choice that stays with you."
Unfortunately, teenagers like White, now a first-year Finance student at UCC, and Leaving Cert student Cian O'Donovan (see panel) are probably in the minority given that figures show that just 12pc of post-primary students meet Department of Health recommendations of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day.
There have been significant changes in teenage fitness levels over the years, according to Donal O'Dowd, director of Co Kerry adventure and fitness centre Cappanalea.
Handling some 35,000 visitors a year – including some 15,000 post-primary students – the centre is under the auspices of Kerry Education and Training Board.
It is one of the network of 12 Outdoor Education Ireland Centres offering adventure sports such as mountaineering, rock climbing, windsurfing and orienteering.
"There has been a big change in fitness levels in young people," says O'Dowd.
As a result, he says, the adventure centre has had to make some of the scheduled activities "less arduous" for young participants – and even drop others.
"In previous years, we'd have climbed Carrauntoohil with every group during our summer course – now that wouldn't be the case," he says.
"There are more unfit people in a group than there would have been before and I see this with both primary and post-primary groups," he observes.
Falling fitness levels among children and adolescents means organisers have also had to shorten some of the hikes featured in the centre's 'Explore' course, while some teenagers have openly expressed horror at the prospect of lugging their own food supplies and tent equipment.
O'Dowd points to technology as a contributory factor to the change in young people's fitness levels.
"There's a big change from physical activity and games to technology – people are playing golf and tennis on Wii and not on a golf or tennis court.
"I see young people here on our residential courses who'd spend their spare time sitting down with their phones – years ago they would've been off kicking a ball or running around.
"Now we have to set aside restricted times for phone use – otherwise they could be totally engrossed in their phones and that impacts on how they interact with one another."
O'Dowd wants to see PE remain a general subject in the new Junior Cycle Student Award system for all students, on top of the proposed new exam-orientated course in this subject.
This dual policy should also operate at Leaving Certificate, so that students can avail of a non-exam programme in PE for everyone – and an exam-orientated programme for those who excel.
"There is an awareness about this issue – the challenge is to change that awareness into good practice and get people exercising," he declares.
Figures released by the ESRI just before Christmas, showing a more than 50pc drop-out of players between the ages of 18 and 22 in Gaelic football, hurling or camogie, constitute a headache for Pat Daly, GAA director of games development and research.
The situation is similar to basketball, although the drop-out rates for soccer are less than half of that.
So what's wrong?
Daly sees two reasons for it. First, what he calls an "over-emphasis" on winning means that the needs of some players are not being catered for.
Sports should be more about participation and fun and less about winning, he believes, because some kids who are not deemed competent enough don't get decent game time.
"In organised sport generally, there is an over-emphasis on winning, which is compounded by lack of game time and poor coaching."
To counteract this problem, the GAA will be setting up special Youth Game Centres next summer, where young people aged between 13 and 18 will play games. "Who won or lost will not be an issue," says Daly.
Participants will also receive training in life skills and nutrition.
The second reason for drop-out rates in sport is the increasingly sedentary nature of modern life, which, Daly believes, discourages participation.
"The whole social media trend has made everything far more sedentary for young people in the last five years – the predisposing factors are towards a more sedentary lifestyle."
Factor in the huge attraction of smartphones, social media and tablets and you'll get some idea of how teenagers are spending time that would otherwise be spent on physical activity on sedentary entertainment.
"The statistics would indicate that there are a lot more not doing sport than doing sport," he warns.
Pointing to the fact that only 12pc of post-primary students get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day, he says: "If you take organisations like the GAA out of it you'd find yourself looking at a precarious scenario."
Parents need to realise their power as role models, he says. "If parents are sedentary kids tend to be sedentary."
Yet, it's not all doom and gloom, according to retired detective sergeant and former football selector Ger McCarthy, who has years of experience working with young people.
"I believe there is a huge appetite among young people for all sorts of sporting activities," he says.
McCarthy is a member of Clonakilty's thriving GAA club. He helped steward a major development project, which, in 2009, saw the club open a sprawling, state-of-the-art €9m complex just outside Clonakilty.
It boasts more than 500 players under the age of 18 and another 160 over-18s.
He believes that, if given the opportunity, most young people will graduate to sport.
At one time in his career, he says, he worked in a densely populated suburb on the north-side of Cork city – a neighbourhood bereft of sports facilities that struggled with high levels of anti-social behaviour and joy-riding.
Once the community came together to set up GAA and soccer facilities, the problem diminished significantly.
However, McCarthy believes, this shouldn't be left up to communities and their sports organisations – the Government, both at central and local level, needs to adopt an integrated approach to the provision of sports facilities, he says.
"It's left up to the different sports organisations," he points out.
"In other countries, local authorities provide sites, expertise and funding for building some facilities. They're then handed over to the specific organisations to run them, so there's huge central government and local government support for community sporting organisations in other countries.
"In Ireland, it is very much up to the organisations to do whatever they can without any formal system of funding. We have very progressive clubs with good facilities here in Clonakilty so it's seen as kind of trendy or fashionable to continue in sport."
Good facilities make a huge difference, he believes.
"It makes sport look more attractive and that's part of the attraction – but you need the funding to make things look good."
'You need to be organised and to have discipline'
Sports is a crucial part of the daily routine for 17-year-old hurler and Gaelic footballer Cian O'Donovan – he works out up to seven times a week.
A Leaving Certificate student at Clonakilty Community College, Co Cork, O'Donovan plays hurling at minor and junior levels, Gaelic football at minor and senior level and is also an enthusiastic soccer player.
In the GAA off-season he puts in six or seven training sessions every week, mostly in the gym.
Once the season begins, he's out on the pitch training with his clubmates nearly every night of the week.
O'Donovan's been playing sport since he was five or six and like many young athletes, he's learned some useful life skills along the way. Diet and sleep are basic but crucial elements of a strong performance on the pitch.
"When you want to perform at your best you have to look after these things," O'Donovan says.
"You learn to understand your body – you're always preparing for what you have to do tomorrow."
There's also a huge social element to his sports activities: "You have a lot of friends. You're playing a match with lads you've known all your life, and when you win it makes it that much more special.
"Sport also prepares you mentally," he says. "You have to get the homework done in advance so it teaches you discipline about study. You need to be organised and to have discipline and sports teaches you that."
There's friendship and loyalty and the need to recognise your responsibility to others: "It teaches you commitment and the importance of being there for people."