The most im­por­tant ed­u­ca­tion of all

Good health is top of most par­ents’ wishes for their chil­dren. So why is there not more in­ter­est in school PE?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health l Physical Education - Sheila Way­man The Irish Life Health School’s Fit­ness Chal­lenge has ex­tended the reg­is­tra­tion date to close by Wed­nes­day, Septem­ber 27th. Reg­is­tra­tion is avail­able through irish­life­health.ie way­man@irish­times.com

So lit­tle time and so many teach­ers to talk to is a com­mon com­plaint about teacher-par­ent meet­ings at se­condary schools. But teach­ers of one sub­ject are likely to be left twid­dling their pen at an empty desk while par­ents queue for their col­leagues.

Few par­ents, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, pri­ori­tise get­ting a progress re­port on their child’s phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion (PE), de­spite its long-last­ing im­por­tance for health. Af­ter all, what use are ir­reg­u­lar Irish verbs when clogged ar­ter­ies take their toll?

Due to the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with aca­demic suc­cess and “points”, mak­ing PE an ex­am­inable sub­ject in the Leav­ing Cert might help to change at­ti­tudes. Back in 2011 the Na­tional Coun­cil for Cur­ricu­lum and As­sess­ment drew up a draft syl­labus where, like mu­sic, 50 per cent of marks would be awarded in prac­ti­cal as­sess­ment and the other half for writ­ten work.

Our fit­ness-con­scious Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar, when min­is­ter for sport, spoke out in favour of mak­ing PE an exam op­tion, so maybe his views will help to breathe new ur­gency into the mat­ter. Mean­while, some­thing needs to be done about phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

The fact that so many chil­dren are over­weight and un­fit is “clear proof” that the school PE pro­grammes are fail­ing, ac­cord­ing to Prof Niall Moyna, head of the School of Health and Hu­man Per­for­mance, Cen­tre for Pre­ven­tive Medicine in DCU.

“If our chil­dren were leav­ing school un­able to per­form ba­sic math­e­mat­ics, we would ex­am­ine the math­e­mat­ics cur­ricu­lum with­out de­lay,” he wrote ear­lier this month in this news­pa­per. “Why, when too many of our chil­dren are leav­ing school over­weight, un­fit and des­tined for a life of ill-health, are we not chal­leng­ing what they are be­ing taught in PE?”

Most par­ents would say that good health is top of their wishes for their chil­dren, but just 6 per cent be­lieve PE is the most im­por­tant sub­ject taught in schools, ac­cord­ing to a na­tional sur­vey by Irish Life Health. More than half of the PE teach­ers ques­tioned in the same piece of re­search say the syl­labus is “not fit for pur­pose”.

Ea­van De­laney, a PE teacher at the co-ed­u­ca­tional New­park School in Black­rock, Co Dublin, wouldn’t go that far but she wel­comes the ap­proach of the new Ju­nior Cert syl­labus. Pupils will be given a cer­tifi­cate of achieve­ment af­ter be­ing as­sessed over two years in four strands of PE.

“Not ev­ery stu­dent can do ev­ery­thing but there is some­thing for ev­ery­body,” she says. And bring­ing PE un­der the um­brella of “well­be­ing” will make peo­ple more aware of what they can do in­di­vid­u­ally – “they are not be­ing pit­ted against each other”.

PE classes are most im­por­tant for the non-sporty chil­dren, as keen sports play­ers will be rack­ing up hours of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity af­ter school and at week­ends no prob­lem. That’s why classes need to en­gage those who have no in­ter­est in tra­di­tional sports.

“We’re try­ing to find some­thing that they can latch on to,” says De­laney who ex­plains that “the hard­est bat­tle is se­nior-cy­cle girls for the most part, to try and get them to do some­thing”.

Try­ing ac­tiv­i­ties

At New­park, se­nior stu­dents can choose from op­tions such as Zumba and yoga, as well as things like bad­minton, swim­ming and foot­ball.

That’s work­ing out well so far, says fifth-year stu­dent Michael Hall (17), be­cause ev­ery­one is ac­tu­ally try­ing ac­tiv­i­ties whereas be­fore “you would get peo­ple who stand still at foot­ball and just watch”.

It’s im­por­tant to lis­ten to chil­dren, says Prof Craig Wil­liams, di­rec­tor of the Chil­dren’s Health and Ex­er­cise Re­search Cen­tre (CHERC) at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter, who was in Dublin for the re­cent launch of the an­nual Irish Life Health Schools Fit­ness Chal­lenge.

“World­wide sur­veys have shown the three prime rea­sons why kids want to be ac­tive or fit are: 1) to have fun 2) to be with their friends and 3) if they can learn some sort of new skill.”

We know fit­ter adults in the work­place will be more pro­duc­tive and have a bet­ter qual­ity of life but “some­how we have lost that con­nect” when it comes to chil­dren in schools, he sug­gests.

The guide­line on ex­er­cise for chil­dren is a min­i­mum of 60 min­utes of mod­er­ate to stren­u­ous phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity a day. But with 90 per cent of se­condary schools pro­vid­ing less than two hours of phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion a week, it can be hard for teenagers to get enough daily ex­er­cise.

Even though New­park does well to give first- and sec­ond-year stu­dents two 80-minute ses­sions of PE a week, this is cut in half for Ju­nior Cert stu­dents – “so we had more time for Irish”, ex­plains Ava Paul (16), who is now in Tran­si­tion Year.

Yet re­search shows that fit­ter and more ac­tive chil­dren can cope bet­ter with stress, says Wil­liams.

“We know in our ado­les­cents that men­tal stress and pres­sures are re­ally high, so if you are fit­ter and do­ing a sport or recre­ational thing you like – be­sides the bi­o­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions, you’re get­ting so­cial­i­sa­tion, psy­cho­log­i­cal ku­dos in terms of self con­fi­dence and self ef­fi­cacy that are of­ten down-played, and it ac­tu­ally helps you take on the pres­sures of ex­am­i­na­tions.”

How­ever, be­ing fit and be­ing ac­tive are not one and the same. Ac­tive chil­dren may not be par­tic­u­larly fit and vice versa, says Wil­liams.

“Over the last 20 years fit­ness per se has been ne­glected in chil­dren’s re­search be­cause phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity has tended to dom­i­nate. Ac­tiv­ity is be­havioural while fit­ness is more bi­o­log­i­cal.”

To im­prove fit­ness you have to in­crease the in­ten­sity of the ex­er­cise. “Chil­dren tend to need a higher in­ten­sity than adults,” he says.

Car­dio ex­er­cise

Any gym-go­ing adult will know that HIIT, or High In­ten­sity In­ter­val Train­ing, is a buzz word in the fit­ness in­dus­try right now. It’s a term that would mean noth­ing to chil­dren but this com­bi­na­tion of short, high in­ten­sity bursts of car­dio ex­er­cise, fol­lowed by equal or longer pe­ri­ods of rest, is what most of them do nat­u­rally when play­ing out­doors.

Chil­dren’s move­ment pat­terns are very much stop, go – have a quick chat with their mates – and go again, says Wil­liams.

“They are like pocket rock­ets – they are not go­ing to go for three miles at the same speed. So the HIIT-type stuff lends it­self nat­u­rally to chil­dren.”

It is why, hav­ing re­searched the ben­e­fits, he ad­vo­cates the in­cor­po­ra­tion of HIIT in PE classes.

“We found that this type of thing works to get them fit,” he ex­plains. Chil­dren aged 12-15 who par­tic­i­pated in three HIIT ses­sions a week for just a fort­night im­proved their aer­o­bic fit­ness. He also be­lieves there are other gains not achieved in steady, con­tin­u­ous ex­er­cise, in terms of blood pres­sure and for vas­cu­lar health, which they are con­tin­u­ing to in­ves­ti­gate.

World­wide stud­ies that have tracked peo­ple into their 50s show that the fit­ter they were at 18 years of age, the lower their risk of ill health such as heart at­tacks and strokes.

It is ini­tia­tives such as the Irish Life Health Schools Fit­ness Chal­lenge, in which more than one-quar­ter of Irish se­condary schools par­tic­i­pated last year, that give teenagers some idea of their fit­ness lev­els. They will see how train­ing over six weeks im­proves the num­ber of shut­tle runs

they can per­form to recorded bleeps that grad­u­ally speed up.

Wil­liams has worked with the Dan­ish ed­u­ca­tional au­thor­i­ties in re­vamp­ing its PE cur­ricu­lum as they look to build more phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity into the school day. This is be­ing done through more time given to PE classes as well as, in some cases, ex­tend­ing the school day with a sports club.

It has also linked into ac­tive trans­port to and from school – some 90 per cent of Dan­ish chil­dren, he says, walk, cy­cle or scooter to and from school. In Ire­land, just 36 per cent of pri­mary- and se­condary-school pupils walk or cy­cle to school, ac­cord­ing to data from Cen­sus 2016.

Wil­liams tells head teach­ers that wher­ever schools have in­creased phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion or ac­tiv­ity pro­grammes, not one has seen the aca­demic scores of their pupils drop. About half have seen aca­demic scores im­prove, while in the rest there has been no change.

So more ex­er­cise and less time in the class­room is likely to be a help rather than a hin­drance when it comes to State ex­ams – not to men­tion in­crease the chances of a health­ier life long af­ter the points race has been for­got­ten.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

In­ter­na­tional ■ ath­let­ics ath­lete Thomas Barr with stu­dents from New­park Com­pre­hen­sive School, Black­rock, Co Dublin. Right: Prof Niall Moyna with stu­dents Dara Rankin and Ayo Ade­bisi, at the Irish Life Health launch of Schools Fit­ness Chal­lenge 2017.

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