'We throw around the term diabetes like it’s confetti now. Kids don’t understand they'll go blind or lose a limb' - DCU Professor
A former PE teacher, Professor Niall Moyna is passionate about how Ireland's schools can help tackle the country’s rising obesity rate in children.
But the Head of the School of Health and Human Performance in DCU believes that making PE an examinable Leaving Certificate subject from September won’t change a thing.
Instead, he believes every Irish child should be taught about their health and fitness from the age of four.
“One of the issues is that people are making this claim about PE, that it’s going to cure all our problems. Internationally it’s been proven to show it doesn’t have any improvement on the health of a child,” he tells independendent.ie.
“Even the word ‘sport’, the mention of that word turns a lot of people off. Maybe we have to change that and talk about health and lifestyle.”
“There’s a huge problem with health literacy in this country,” he said. “There has never been in this country a compulsion for PE teachers to measure health and fitness."
“It’s not taught. There’s no formal place where we teach children a curriculum on health. Imagine if for your Leaving Cert you wrote a five-year review on your own health. You’d take what you learned with you throughout your life.”
A report 'Growing Up in Ireland’ in November showed that one in 20 of Ireland’s 7-8 year olds are obese.
Some primary school children have 40-inch waists, the HSE’s clinic lead on obesity Professor Donal O’Shea has also warned.
Obese children are at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep difficulties, musculoskeletal problems and future cardiovascular disease, as well as school absence, psychological problems and social isolation.
But despite the warnings, Professor Moyna believes Irish people have become desensitised to terms like “obesity” and “diabetes”.
“We throw around the term diabetes like it’s confetti now. Kids don’t understand that it’s going to end up in blindness, limb amputations, renal failure and premature death.”
“We just throw out these buzzwords. We’re desensitised. Let’s get in there with primary preventions. The three activities that every child in this country should be able to do are walk or run, cycle and swim. By the time every child leaves school, they should be able to swim.”
He added: “Once a child becomes obese, it’s very difficult to reverse it. The only thing that works for obesity is bariatric surgery.”
“The number of children presenting with insulin resistance and pre-diabetes in this country are huge. We never used to have this problem. The warning signs are there
Instead of looking to our international counterparts and seeing how countries like the Netherlands have tackled childhood obesity, Ireland needs to take the lead and develop a health science programme in schools, Prof Moyna says.
“We’re a small country. We should be world leaders. We can do this non-invasively. Give the children the health literacy to understand what the data means.”
He added: “If we can get the kids to develop really, really good health behaviours, that’s key.”
“Society has a role to play. I would like the Irish people to say we value the health of our children, we’re going to have a programme in health science in school.”
Prof Moyna has overseen the School’s Fitness Challenge, a study of more than 30,000 students throughout the country, which identified a trend towards neglecting fitness in exam years.
The challenge measures cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) – low CRF increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), while improving CRF is associated with a reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“Kids today are digital natives. My concern is that they’ll be bombarded with all of this information about health [on their phones], and that it’s non-contextualised. If children had a full understanding of their cardiovascular health and fitness and what foods are healthy, there’s a greater chance they will listen and have a healthier lifestyle.”
“All of these technologies, they’re making life easier for us, but they’re engineering exercise out of our lives… The problem is that children don’t realise what’s happening to their bodies when they’re becoming inactive and when they’re becoming obese. Imagine if they knew what was happening.”
“There is nothing more important to an individual than their health and the introduction of PE as an examinable subject this year is an important first step. However, there is still an urgent need for a stand-alone health science curriculum in schools, to teach young people health literacy and the reasons why long-term fitness is so important to their future health and in preventing them from developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in later life,” he added.
As part of the School’s Fitness Challenge all students take a fitness test. They then complete a six-week training programme to improve cardiovascular fitness, followed by a fitness repeat test.
“How you perform in that is a really good indicator of your overall health and obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure. The higher you perform in that test, the less likely you are to be at risk of these.”
“They can predict their risks based on the performance in that test.”
“Imagine if at four years of age, these kids were tracking their health. At that age kids are like sponges.”
“The hardest thing to do is to change a behaviour. And we spend so much of our healthcare euros changing a behaviour, would it not be easier creating a behaviour in the first place?,” Prof Moyna asked.
To read the full report on the Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge, see here