Monday 22 January 2018

We need to get back to the great outdoors

As a society, we have moved indoors, partly as a result of worries about safety. John Greene thinks it's time to reverse the trend

Road bowling in Ireland in 1955
Road bowling in Ireland in 1955
John Greene

John Greene

'If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.' - Mickey Mantle

The photograph was taken 60 years ago on an Irish country lane. A group of boys are playing the ancient game of road bowling under the watchful eye of an adult. It's a pastoral scene full of the fun, vitality and the joie de vivre of youth. And it has, too, a potent symbolism, a reminder of the simple pleasures of the outdoor life that was once the everyday life of an Irish child.

Most of us of a certain age spent a lot of our time enjoying the outdoors. Whether you lived in the country, as I did, or in a town or city, it was part of normal everyday life to see groups of children at play. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Yes, there are good reasons for that, safety being chief among them, but it is still sad that this is part of our past and not our future. As a society, we have moved indoors.

In the excellent book Places We Play, authors Mike Cronin and Roisin Higgins write: "Ireland, like many nations, has always been a place of sport. As Neil Tranter observed, 'from the dawn of human civilisation, it seems the need for some form of sporting physical recreation has almost been as imperative to human beings as the need to procreate, work and eat.'"

Now, more than ever, there are supervised and structured opportunities for young boys and girls to enjoy physical activity in a safe environment. We have more facilities, we have more expertise and, most important of all, we have more knowledge. We know and understand the benefits of being physically active. And men know too - there's nowhere to hide anymore. And yet here we are, on the cusp of a health crisis in our men. What has gone wrong?

There is, said Dr Ronan Collins on radio last week, an "explosion" in diabetes in this country.

There was a time when the greatest health threats were infectious diseases, but advancements in science changed all that and now degenerative illnesses are the chief enemy in the developed world. Decline in brain function, high cholesterol, dementia, strokes, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more - all afflictions that can strike as we age, and all of which can have their roots in the lifestyle decisions we make much earlier.

Dr Collins, who is a Consultant Geriatrician and Stroke Specialist in Tallaght Hospital, spoke about degenerative illnesses and how they will continue to increase in the next decade, placing an enormous burden on the health system, unless more preventative action is taken when we are younger.

Which is why it is such a shame that scenes like the one depicted in the photograph are such a rarity. Because the failure of young boys to engage in the kind of outdoor life and physical activity we once took for granted has its implications as they get older.

In a lot of cases, the rot, literally, sets in during the teenage years. This is when we see a more sedentary lifestyle begin to take hold and to where the difficulties with regard to obesity - and later diabetes, heart disease and so on - can be traced.

Cutbacks in education have most definitely had a negative impact, but in most parts of the country healthy levels of volunteerism in communities pick up the slack so that there is still plenty of opportunity and encouragement for children to be active.

The first major change occurs when we graduate to secondary school as there is an immediate fall-off in physical exercise, which research suggests is about one in 10.

The slippage continues right the way through secondary school years, and then intensifies in sixth year and into third -level education. This should be causing a lot more alarm in the system than it appears to be. Even more worrying is that adolescent males, and indeed females, become less active in their Junior Cert and Leaving Cert years. There is clear evidence that our State examinations have a direct, negative impact on the willingness of teenagers to stay fit and active as they struggle to cope with the pressure. And yet it has been found that, on average, those who are physically active do better in the Leaving Cert than those who aren't. Schools need to get this message across to parents so that they keep health and wellbeing to the forefront of family routines.

It is easy to make excuses, and to blame modern society for our ills, but really we just need to get our children back outdoors.

Sunday Independent

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