CAO points race 'putting children's health at risk' amid fall in fitness levels
Pupils sacrifice exercise for study as participation drops off after age of 15
The long-term health of teenagers is being put at risk by the race for CAO points, according to health and fitness expert Professor Niall Moyna.
His warning comes as a new study shows a sharp fall in fitness levels among second-level pupils, particularly girls, after the age of 15.
The Dublin City University (DCU) professor of clinical exercise physiology blames the pressure on students to perform well in the State exams, although the trend is also obvious in transition year.
"A school that thinks there is something more important than children's health - I would be very interested in talking to that principal," he told the Irish Independent.
He said there was also a "huge disconnect" among parents who "just don't seem to understand the link between childhood fitness and long-term health".
Contrary to any view that students who sacrifice exercise for study reap the benefits in better exam results, Dr Moyna pointed to international research showing how physical activity helped reduce stress levels, increased concentration and had a positive impact on academic performance.
He cited a 2014 study that tracked more than 80,000 students and found that children who significantly improved their fitness over a five-year period enhanced their academic performance compared with children whose fitness levels did not change.
Prof Moyna was commenting on findings from the annual Irish Life Health Schools' Fitness Challenge, the largest national surveillance study on the fitness of 13 to 18 year olds, which he oversees in DCU's Centre for Preventive Medicine.
Now in its eighth year, the challenge measures pupils' cardiovascular fitness through a series 20-metre running tests, spaced six weeks apart, with a training programme in between.
The programme can improve teen fitness levels by an average of 10pc, but the 2018 findings highlight how third year, typically when pupils are 15, is a crossroads.
After third year, participation in the challenge drops by over 80pc and among girls who do get involved, fitness levels decrease dramatically from first year to sixth year.
Last September, 185 schools and 24,167 teen students signed up for the challenge. But while almost 9,000 13-year-olds were involved, it was down to 1,300 17-year-olds.
Prof Moyna said the seven years of data had enabled them to analyse the trends and their biggest concern was the "tremendously large participation drop-off after third year", which he described as "extremely alarming".
"We are seeing a direct link between the drop in participation and the increasing number of children aged from 16 to 18 years not meeting the minimum level of fitness required for optimal health.
"This is a major national issue, and the big question is why are schools and parents letting this happen? Instead of managing health implications as they arise, we should be trying to prevent them."
He said in addition to being the leading cause of death in Ireland, cardiovascular disease was associated with increased risk for dementia. He called for continuous surveillance of cardiorespiratory fitness to be mandatory in second-level school.
Gort Community School, Co Galway, Summerhill College, Co Sligo, and Alexandra College, Dublin, were category winners for most improved school in the study, while Carrigallen Vocational School, Co Leitrim, St Macartan's College, Co Monaghan, and Coláiste Naomh Mhuire, Co Kildare, were category winners for Ireland's fittest schools.