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Promoting active lifestyle for young people vital to prevent mental issues in adulthood

Niall Moyna


Benefits: Boxer Mary-Kate Slattery at the launch of the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge which encourages participation in sports. Photo: INPHO

Benefits: Boxer Mary-Kate Slattery at the launch of the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge which encourages participation in sports. Photo: INPHO

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Benefits: Boxer Mary-Kate Slattery at the launch of the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge which encourages participation in sports. Photo: INPHO

The proven link between childhood fitness and long-term physical and mental health is the key focus of this year's Irish Life Health Schools' Fitness Challenge. Now entering its ninth year, over 200,000 students participated, making it the largest national study on the fitness of secondary school children in Ireland and the third largest study of its kind in the world.

The goal is to educate and equip young people with the skills and knowledge to introduce exercise into their daily routine to help improve and maintain both physical and mental health.

Adolescence is a critical and influential period of development that spans the transition from childhood to an independent, self-reliant adult. The changes that occur during this period span the biological, physical, psychological and behavioural domains of functioning.

Mental health is a major part of adolescent wellbeing and affects young people's ability to engage in many aspects of society. Adolescence is the peak time for clinical onset of most mental illnesses with 50pc of those with lifetime mental illness (excluding dementia) experiencing initial symptoms by 14.

Disorders include anxiety, depression, attention deficit, hyperactivity, eating disorders, and self-harm. One in five adolescents has a mental illness that will persist into adulthood.

The Unicef Innocenti Report Card published in 2017 reported that 22.6pc of Irish children between the age of 11 and 15 experienced two or more psychological symptoms, such as feeling low, irritable or nervous, or having sleeping difficulties, more than once a week. It also found that among high-income countries Ireland had the fourth highest teenage suicide rate at 10.3 per 100,000 teenagers.

The fact that adolescence is a period of significant risk for the onset of mental disorders that can cause significant impairment in quality of life underlines the importance of optimising prevention and treatment strategies.

A good diet, appropriate physical activity and sleep, along with reduced screen time, are important in optimising mental health among adolescents.

People who are physically active tend to have better mental health compared to those who are sedentary. We know that physical activity improves mood and releases chemicals in the brain that improve our emotions and makes us feel better.

Think about how you feel after finishing a run, yoga class or even a brisk 30-minute walk. People who are physically active also tend to cope better in stressful situations. Furthermore, participation in sport and exercise groups may also provide social interaction and promote social support which are important for good mental health.

Adolescents now live in a world with increased opportunities for sedentary behaviours that may negatively affect mental health. There is consistent evidence to link increased time spent using screens for leisure or entertainment with poorer mental health experiences among adolescents. Mood, for example, is adversely affected among adolescents who spend two to three hours per day on average of screen time for leisure.

Much of the conversation about adolescent mental health implicates digital technology and social media usage as a major contributing factor. The unprecedented rise in young people's use of social media has decreased direct face-to-face interaction, and resulted in a dependency on being "liked" for social validation.

The pressure to keep up with discussions 24 hours a day is adversely affecting sleep and lowering levels of physical activity, with the impact greater in girls than boys. Despite the fact that adherence to the recommended 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity in early adolescence is associated with almost 50pc less visits to the GP for mental health issues, only 10pc of Irish post-primary school students meet the physical activity recommendation.

This is an alarming trend considering that a person's physical activity level during adolescence will track into adulthood and that low levels of physical activity increase the risk for developing other chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and high blood pressure.

Results from the My World Survey 2, the largest ever study of Ireland's youth mental health, conducted by UCD School of Psychology and the Jigsaw charity, found that the proportion of adolescents self-reporting severe anxiety doubled from 11pc to 22pc between 2012 and 2019.

The proportion of adolescents who fell into the severe and very severe categories for depression increased from 8pc to 15pc in the same time period.

The increase in self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression will potentially increase the number of adolescents with long-term conditions who will transition to adult services.

If left untreated, mental health disorders that emerge prior to adulthood impose a substantially greater health cost than those that emerge later in life.

Establishing an active lifestyle during adolescence will result in significant physical and mental health benefits throughout life. Similarly, encouraging and promoting participation in organised sports provide mental health benefits beyond increased physical activity alone.

It is vital that we place a greater emphasis on exercise in secondary schools.

  • Prof Niall Moyna, Centre for Preventive Medicine, Dublin City University

Irish Independent