More than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are already at risk of poor heart health

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More than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are already at risk of poor heart health

Teens are urged to stay active

The latest findings from DCU and Irish Life Health indicate that 34% of girls and 41% of boys aged 16 do not meet the minimum level of fitness needed for optimal heart health.  These low levels of fitness increase the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

The research, based on data collected during last year’s Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge, overseen by Prof. Niall Moyna, DCU, also reveals a steady decline in fitness levels as students progress through secondary school.

1 in 5 (19%) first year boys don’t meet the minimum fitness levels required for good heart health, with this number more than doubling to 2 in 5 (41%) at the age of 16.

8% of 12-year-old girls do not meet the minimum requirement for good heart health, increasing to a third (34%) at the age of 16. First year boys should be able to run at least 32 shuttles in order to meet minimum fitness levels required for good heart health, and first year girls should be able to run at least 15 shuttles.

The good news is that the fitness decline is not inevitable, and improvements can be made in a matter of weeks.  Over 30,000 students participated in the 6-week Irish Life Health School Fitness Challenge last year, and first year students saw an average 8-10% improvement in their fitness levels.

The biggest improvement was seen in at-risk, low-fit teenagers, further demonstrating the importance of early intervention for Irish teenagers.

The Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge is the largest fitness study of its kind in Ireland, and now the third largest in the world. Now in its seventh year, over 172,000 children have taken part.

With a focus on preventive and proactive healthcare, it aims to show that small steps, through a six-week challenge, can make real, impactful changes to fitness levels.

The low level of fitness among post-primary school students is linked to the decline in physical activity levels.This is a worrying trend as it’s documented that sedentary childhood behaviours track into adulthood and furthermore, as physical activity declines, time spent engaged in sedentary behaviours increases.

Physical activity benefits every aspect of health including weight maintenance and general well-being,while low levels of cardiovascular fitness can be attributed to the likelihood of prematurely developing chronic diseases that can result in heart attacks and stroke and diabetes.

Commenting on the research, Prof Niall Moyna, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance, Centre for Preventive Medicine in DCU said “We really can’t ignore the fact that more than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are now at risk of developing premature cardiovascular disease.

The impact on their long-term health and our healthcare system is undeniable.  The progressive decrease in fitness seen in boys and girls as they progress through post-primary school is alarming and should be a wakeup call for parents, teens and healthcare professionals.”

He continues: “The good news is that substantial improvements can occur after as little as six weeks of regular exercise -with low-fit teens benefitting the most.  I would strongly encourage all students and particularly those who are not physically active or involved in organized sport to give it a go!”

Olympian ambassador Thomas Barr has endorsed participation in the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge since 2016. He says: “It seems that cardiovascular exercise has almost become uncool with teens, with more of a focus on resistance training.

Cardio is amazing for your heart health, your wellbeing, keeping your weight at a healthy level, and it even boosts concentration in school. It doesn’t take much to see an improvement, so I’d call on all secondary school students around the country to get involved with the Challenge and embrace the benefits of cardio.”

Ambassador Louise Galvin, physiotherapist and representative athlete in rugby, GAA and basketball, hopes highlighting the long-term health benefits of fitness will encourage secondary school students to give it a go.

She says: “I know it can be intimidating to begin a new activity, especially for teens who might feel that they are unfit. However, it can be something as simple as a daily brisk walk, or cycling to school instead of hopping in the car.

"I find team sports are such as social way to connect with people, but if that isn’t your thing, you could walk in the evenings with a friend, play tennis weekly or just find something that works for you! The long term health benefits, as well as the social, are fantastic.”

Liz Rowen, Head of Marketing, at Irish Life Health said, “Each year we are seeing more students participating in the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge. To be the biggest fitness study of its kind in Ireland, and the third biggest study in the world, is something we are hugely proud of.

While we have seen worrying trends in youth fitness, we also want to recognise the invaluable contribution the PE teachers of Ireland make, and to encourage students to join the Challenge and continue to be more physically active. We would call on every secondary school in the country to participate in the Challenge to help students kick-start their fitness.”

Registration is now open for the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge and is open to all secondary school students around the country. PE teachers across the country can register for the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge at www.irishlifehealth.ie/fitness challenge/ by September 21.