Monday 16 September 2019

Rob Pearson: 'Growing divide as majority of Ireland gets active'

The nation's preferred types of sport and exercise are those undertaken in their own time and on their own terms. Stock image
The nation's preferred types of sport and exercise are those undertaken in their own time and on their own terms. Stock image

Rob Pearson

This will be remembered as a golden year for Irish sport with our rugby, hockey, rowing, athletics, gymnastics and boxing stars making headlines on the global stage.

Having honed their skills and abilities over a lifetime of dedication involving thousands of hours of structured training, sacrifice and meticulous preparation, these athletes represent the tip of the iceberg in our nation's dynamic relationship with sport and exercise.

When it comes to the general population there is a growing divide between those invested in their physical health and well-being and those who are not.

This is borne out in the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index, a comprehensive 1,000-person nationally representative survey with quotas imposed across gender, region, age and social class.

The research, which is in its ninth year, carried out by Teneo and iReach, examines the general public's attitudes towards sport, their sporting heroes, levels of participation and the impact of sport on the Irish psyche.

The nation's preferred types of sport and exercise are those undertaken in their own time and on their own terms.

Click to view full size image
Click to view full size image

Walking is used by 38 per cent of the population as a form of exercise, making it the nation's favourite ahead of personal fitness/gym activities (28 per cent) and swimming (15 per cent). Soccer is the only team sport to break into the top five, with 14 per cent of the population playing soccer, or a short-form variant, this year.

We are in the midst of a running renaissance. The 2019 Dublin Marathon sold out with 10 and a half months to go and community-based initiatives like VHI ParkRun are experiencing huge growth, so it comes as no surprise that running is our joint fourth favourite form of exercise on 10 per cent, tied with cycling. Interestingly, over 50,000 commuters, according to CSO, cycle to work, a figure that is expected to rise as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross announces plans to dramatically increase investment in cycling infrastructure.

While there has been some fluctuation in participation trends year on year, the biggest move has been the growth of personal fitness and gym activities.

Symptomatic of our booming economy, one in four adults are members of a gym or fitness club, with the highest membership rates (38 per cent) being among 18-24 year olds.

While this research does not take those aged under 18 into account, it does shine a light on the significant fall-out from sport - both competitive and recreational - as we age. Most dramatic is the sharp loss of women from sport: 11 per cent of Irish women aged 18-24 play competitive sport. This figure tumbles to three per cent for 25-34. The trend is mirrored in recreational sport, played by 37 per cent of 18-24 year old women but only 13 per cent of 24-34 year olds.

Conversely, levels of male participation in recreational sport show little attrition through the years, holding steady above 30 per cent before falling off in the over 55 age bracket.

Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in how we exercise: a quarter of Irish adults wear a fitness tracker, almost double the previous year.

Similarly, online and mobile dietary and nutritional trackers are increasingly being used. Interestingly, fitness technology is being widely adopted regardless of age, gender or social class; it is not the reserve of younger or more affluent segments of society as might seem intuitive. Technology is having an overwhelmingly positive impact on those who use it. Three out of four technology adopters believe that it motivates them to exercise more and be healthier.

We are motivated to exercise and play sport by numerous factors. Health is the number one reason we exercise and play sport, as cited by four out of five adults.

The younger you are, the more body conscious you are - half of women aged between 18-24 are motivated to exercise to look good, while a quarter of men are similarly motivated.

The research indicates that men are more motivated than women to exercise by a desire for social interaction (48 per cent v 29 per cent) with the highest levels (79 per cent) experienced amongst 25-34 year-old males. According to a report by the Loneliness Taskforce, young adults can be particularly susceptible to experiencing feelings of loneliness. Evidently the social outlet that sport and exercise provide has a role to play in combatting the loneliness epidemic in Ireland.

Our relationship with sport extends beyond physical participation and into volunteering. One in five of the general public volunteered at a sporting or exercise-related initiative in the last 12 months; men are almost twice as likely to volunteer than women. On average we give up 8.7 hours of our time per month to volunteering, with those aged over 55 being the most generous, giving an average of 12.4 hours per month.

Despite the ongoing investment in infrastructure and fact that access has never been easier, a quarter of the population claim to take no form of exercise whatsoever, which jumps to a third of those classed C2DE, making them the least active segment of society across all quotas.

As a society we have never had more flexible options when it comes to playing sport and exercising. Technology is turbo-charging this and holding us accountable to ourselves.

We claim to spend an average of 5.9 hours exercising per week, which far exceeds the 150 minutes per week recommended in the National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland.

And yet despite all the advantages afforded to us and reported levels of activity, obesity levels are rising.

The data suggests that the nation is travelling on divergent paths: one taken by health-conscious, tech-savvy, sport and exercise advocates and the other by exercise rejectors. How do we encourage more people to follow the brightly signed and ultimately more rewarding pathway?

Rob Pearson is a director at public relations and communications firm Teneo.

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