Everything we know about Irish teenagers tells us that we need to do all we can to help them stay healthy and well. Yet our teenagers are putting on weight and developing health issues - physical and mental - which can become a much bigger problem for them as they get older.
Every study about the health and well-being of our young is telling us the same thing: they are not getting enough exercise and too many are heavier than they should be. Added to that, there are clear patterns too, such as the fact that girls are more likely to be overweight than boys, and that young people from lower income families are also more likely to be overweight.
The most recent data on this subject emerged over the summer in the latest update from the Growing Up In Ireland project, which has been tracking the development of thousands of children born in 1998. The children were first interviewed when they were nine years of age, and again when they were 13. Over 6,000 were again interviewed in their late teens, and the issue of obesity, which has been prevalent all through the project, remains a huge concern.
This report is telling us that more than one quarter of Ireland's 17- and 18-year-olds are too heavy - 20 per cent are overweight; eight per cent are obese. The same trends that have been seen in other studies are there too. So, more girls than boys are overweight (30 per cent against 25 per cent) and weight problems are more common among those from lower income families.
Two-thirds of teenagers are getting the recommended amount of exercise each week, that is, 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity. But when you look at exercise according to gender, the difference is stark: 76 per cent of boys in that age group are getting the recommended amount, while just over half of girls (53 per cent) are.
There is nothing new in any of this information. And if these teenagers are interviewed again in their early 20s, many will have continued on a path towards developing deeper health issues. Obesity is a massive burden on the health system, causing all sorts of illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. During this pandemic, those who are overweight are also at a greater risk if they catch Covid than those who are fit and healthy.
The frustration, then, is that a lot more could easily be done to tackle this problem. There has been a concerted national effort to not just increase awareness and education in the population, but to put programmes in place to encourage more people of all ages to exercise. Ultimately, it's all about removing barriers and making it as easy as possible for people to take some form of exercise.
For young people, introducing PE as an exam subject was an important and welcome step, but ultimately it still only appeals to those who are already active and in some way physically literate. Sports clubs around the country also do a fantastic job in communities but, for a variety of reasons, there are plenty of children still falling through the net.
The home environment is obviously very important for young people too in terms of influence and learned behaviours. When exercise is part of daily life in the home it has a positive impact on children and, in turn, they are more likely to be active.
The one place we know for sure that can have a real and lasting impact, however, is our schools. Not every child will make it to a local sports club, and not every child will be lucky enough to learn the value of exercise at home. But most children attend school, so this is where the message can really be hammered home. Yet, despite all the overwhelming evidence of the value of regular physical activity to young people, it is remarkable that elements of the Irish education system continue to resist making it an integral part of school life.
Take one all-girls school in a large county town which this year has not timetabled PE for its sixth year students. The school (like many) has also shortened its lunch break time because of Covid, so there is no opportunity for sixth year girls to exercise during their school day. However, the school has timetabled three 40-minute classes of religious education each week. This disparity makes no sense, especially as sixth year students around the country are facing into a stressful year, made even more so by the fact that there is uncertainty around the Leaving Cert and that they have missed significant curriculum time already because of the shutdown last March.
We know that many teenagers need to be encouraged to exercise as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. We also know that girls in particular need to have opportunities to exercise. Yet here we have a school in a large, populous town taking the extraordinary step of not making it available to its students. This is a vulnerable age group and the damage done by removing physical exercise from their school day will be very hard to reverse in the coming years.
I contacted an experienced PE teacher who was not surprised, however, by this news. He said there are still too many schools taking this stance. I also randomly checked on three other schools: one is an all-boys school in the same town, where PE is compulsory for all sixth-year students; the other two schools are mixed schools, and in one PE is also compulsory for all sixth years, while it is optional in the other, with (anecdotally) around a 50 per cent take up rate.
This just shows the inconsistencies in approach which is at the heart of the problem. And this is despite the fact that the Department of Education's guidelines around PE are clear. "All senior cycle students must be provided with the opportunity to study Physical Education in some capacity," said a spokesperson for the department last week, adding that this can be done either through PE as a Leaving Cert subject or through the existing PE framework for students.
"Physical Education is a core part of the curriculum at all levels - primary and post-primary - and all schools are required to plan their timetables to allow for adequate breaks," said the spokesperson.
Apart from the fact that there are schools which do not appear to be adhering to this very clear guideline, is it right that in many schools students can just opt out? Is it not in their interest - and in the interest of society - that PE is always compulsory in all schools?
We have come a long way in recent years on this issue and perhaps the next detailed study of our children and teenagers will show some improvement, but if all our schools are not on the same page when it comes to physical exercise then it seems there is still a way to travel.
Sunday Indo Sport