Survey highlights worrying trend in numbers exercising
In 2016, Ireland's elite athletes and teams punched above their weight and made global headlines along the way. A glance at the Irish Independent Sports Star of the Year list and other awards ceremonies illustrates this. But despite the heroics of our sports stars, from Croke Park to Chicago, we as a nation seem to have taken a backward step when it comes to participation in sport and exercise.
The PSG Sport and Sponsorship Sentiment Index (SSSI), a 1,000-person nationally representative survey conducted by PSG Sponsorship between December 9 and 14, has revealed that participation in competitive sport has fallen from 11 per cent to seven per cent.
Perhaps a more alarming statistic is that 26 per cent of those over 18 years of age claim to take no exercise at all, an increase from 19 per cent in 2015. The drop is in keeping with Sport Ireland's 2015 Irish Sport Monitor Report, which found a fall in sport and exercise participation from 2013 to 2015.
Non-competitive and mass participative types of exercise top the list as the nation's preferred forms of exercise: 41 per cent of all Irish people use walking as a regular source of exercise, ahead of swimming on 19 per cent, personal fitness on 17 per cent, cycling on 15 per cent and running on 13 per cent. Observers have pointed to the low cost of entry to many of these sports and their flexible nature.
The research may come as some surprise as the recent SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon became the fourth largest in Europe with 19,500 participants and Parkrun, the free 5km phenomenon taking place every Saturday, has expanded from 39 locations across Ireland to 55 and announced a major new partnership with VHI.
As a nation we are bombarded with healthy living programming including; 'Ireland's Fittest Family', 'Operation Transformation' and 'What Are Your Eating?', and from social media influencers such as Roz Purcell, Derek Hartigan and the Happy Pear brothers, who are all preaching the benefits of an active lifestyle. But it seems their message is only partially getting through.
Does this conflicting information suggest that the nation is becoming more divided in our exercise habits? Are the fit becoming fitter and the lazy even lazier?
Social Class: The Healthy and Wealthy
The more educated and wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be active. The single biggest factor impacting participation and healthy living in Ireland is social class.
It is impossible to ignore the stark differences in participation figures when comparing the habits of those classified ABC1 (upper-middle class, middle or lower-middle class) to their C2DE (casual low-grade workers, manual workers) counterparts - 32 per cent of all C2DEs take no form of exercise compared to 20 per cent of all ABC1s, a figure that if uncorrected will have long lasting impacts on their health and unknown cost implications on the Health Services.
The divide is getting deeper. This must alarm government authorities and health lobbyists. A fresh look at more school sport and community-based activity and encouraging participation in so-called disadvantaged areas must be a priority.
Men play more sport. Women exercise
Men are also more active than women. Despite the massive strides made by female sports stars and sports associations in the last decade, men are still more active when it comes to sport. Historically, participation in competitive and organised sport has been dominated by men and this trend continues in 2016 with 10 per cent of all men playing competitive sport versus only three per cent of all women.
The same trend applies in recreational and non-competitive sport, with 22 per cent of men revealing that this is their most frequent source of physical exercise as opposed to 13 per cent of women.
While men are more likely to participate on teams and in leagues, women are more likely to take part in keep-fit-based activities such as walking, swimming and personal fitness classes: 58 per cent of all women take part in such keep fit activities compared to 42 per cent of men, again a drop on 2015 figures.
Women are also over twice as likely to take part in structured gym and exercise classes, with 15 per cent involved in activities such as bootcamp, yoga and spinning compared to just six per cent of men.
In sheer numbers, when it comes to lack of participation, the contrast between men and women is not remarkable but it is the growing divide between the number of men versus women playing competitive sport that may give us cause for concern - competitive sport is still losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Irish women.
Is this because women are less interested in competitive sport or is it because there remain insufficient outlets for women?
The older you are, the more likely you are to lead a sedentary lifestyle.
Young males dominate the competitive sporting landscape, with 35 per cent playing competitive sports such as soccer, rugby and Gaelic games. The attrition rate from competitive sport is marked, and by the time these males are aged 25 to 34, participation in competitive sport has dropped to 13 per cent. As people get older, families take over and careers prosper, it is no shock that organised team sports are dominated by the 18 to 34-year-old age groups.
As a nation we are obsessed with sport: our appetite to consume it and to participate in sport remains high. With New Year looming we are about to be inundated with the latest in shiny toys and tricks that will make us healthier, fitter and happier.
The reality is that we are preaching to the converted. The gap between those exercising and those not is in fact widening. Age, sex and in particular social class are the key factors. The fit are getting fitter, while the hardest to reach are falling away at the fastest rate.
Rob Pearson is an account director with PSG Sponsorship
Sunday Indo Sport