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Mum's the word: How a great fitness initiative is making our schools look bad

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Everywhere we turn there's grim statistics about the obesity epidemic facing our children. How refreshing, then, to find someone putting their money where their mouth is and tackling the problem head on. I recently heard about Aviva Health's Schools' Fitness Challenge, which was launched in 2013 without ever making it on to my radar.

I'm usually cynical about sponsorship deals, but, in this case, the marriage makes perfect sense. If Aviva Health plans to do business in Ireland for years to come it's in their interest to be dealing with a healthy public, and, happily, it's in our kids' interests too.

The School's Fitness Challenge aims to influence potential clients while they're young while presenting fitness as something fun.

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For many, exercise and sport are already perceived as fun, undertaken as opt-in hobbies, but, sadly, there's a large part of our youth that simply aren't interested.

Changes in our lifestyle, many associated with technology, have seen younger generations disconnected from the great outdoors like our grandparents never could have imagined. Fewer cycle or walk to school than ever before and with teenagers getting their kicks from games consoles rather than football pitches it can seem like an uphill battle convincing a sedentary kid that exercise is anything other than hard work.

With the Schools Fitness Challenge secondary students, from 1st to 4th year, have the opportunity to take part in bleep tests, whereby contestants must run between cones beating a bleep that gets faster after each minute.

The test is taken to establish participants fitness levels and is followed by a six-week training programme to improve aerobic fitness. After the six weeks the bleep test is taken again with everyone's scores recorded.

Not only are there prizes for the three top schools (Fittest Girls', Boys' and Mixed Schools) but also for the most improved schools.

In 2013, 8,047 students from 219 schools took part in the inaugural challenge. That jumped to 13,067 students in 2014, from an additional 30 schools. While the upward trend is encouraging, I want to know what PE teachers at the State's other 474 secondary schools are playing at? Why on Earth have so few of them signed up?

Aside from the incentive of winning glory for their school, Elvery's has stumped up valuable sports equipment prizes. Assuming (rather implausibly) that these 474 PE teachers aren't drawn to winning or accolades or, even more bizarrely, shiny new gym equipment, then what about the opportunity to improve their students' fitness in a novel way?

According to exercise physiologist and creator of the challenge Prof Niall Moyna, 2014's results show improved fitness across all participating schools by almost 20pc. With statistics like this it's madness every school in the country isn't taking part.

Registration closes on January 17. If your kid's school hasn't signed up, why not give them a gentle nudge?

It's pathetic that any school should need to be cajoled into such a smart initiative: If the PE teachers can't even be bothered what hope do the kids have?


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