Are Irish kids healthy?

Are Irish kids healthy?
Róise McGagh examines whether children in Ireland are exercising enough.

Kids are often quite energetic and would naturally take care of themselves when it comes to running around and filling their daily quota of activity. However, in recent years technology has had a big impact on the how active young people all the way up to age 18 are.

The Health Behaviours in School-aged Children (HBSC) 2018 Study has recently been released and it shows that less than half of Irish kids are exercising four or five times a week.

This could mean that many Irish children are getting nowhere near the daily target. In Ireland 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese and we are on track to have one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe by 2030.

The study, commissioned by Department of Health and carried out by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, surveyed 15,557 children in 255 schools in the republic of Ireland to get an overall view of their wellbeing. There were some very positive results from the study despite the flat line in physical activity.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, principal investigator Prof. Saoirse Nic Gabhainn says: “Particularly in substance abuse, we have been seeing the numbers drop every study and that’s following a general trend right across Europe in a reduction in smoking, drinking and cannabis use amongst teenagers.”

According to Healthy Ireland and the Department of Health, the optimum amount of exercise for a child (2-18) is a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day.

It might seem like a lot but it can be covered quite easily. Sixty minutes can easily be done in P.E. or by playing at breaktime, on playground equipment or skipping but many kids stop this kind of activity by the time they’re in 1st year of secondary school.

A different 2018 study by Sport Ireland showed that 17% of primary school pupils met physical activity guidelines but only 1 in 10 of secondary school pupils did. Boys were also more likely to meet these guidelines at second level than girls.

The schoolchildren’s behaviour report showed only 52% of children report are exercising four or more times per week with 9% of 10 to 17 year olds report being totally physically inactive.

Both figures have been static since 2014. This means that the efforts made so far towards keeping kids active within schools has not been enough to create an overall improvement.

“The only really successful interventions have been when everybody is working together” says Prof. Mic Gabhainn.

She tells us about how the Active School Flag (ASF) is an important reward scheme that includes the Active Schools Week and encourages schools to get kids moving. She feels it could help a lot in this area and there are many schools involved but there could be more.

“It’s been encouraging all sports of physical activity, especially for the children who don’t engage in team sports, it gives them other physical activity opportunities.” She says there could be other elements pushed within this scheme like encouraging active transport to schools such as cycling and walking, “which also obviously help the environment”.

Screen time is an issue that can take time away from an active lifestyle, with the average amount of time preschool children spending TV watching being 2.2 hours and 34% of preschool children having a TV in their bedroom. There is evidence to suggest that watching a lot of TV or videos can negatively affect children’s sleep, weight, cognitive and language skills.

There are some ways of easily reducing screen time for children like making mealtimes screen-free zones; keeping the hour before bedtime screen-free and avoiding having screens in children’s bedrooms, including TVs.

Organised team and individual sports such as football, athletics, swimming or dance classes are some fun, widely available options for young people to keep active that could be more utilised. It has been shown by the Sport Ireland study; 80% of primary school pupils participated in community sport at least once a week but this dropped to 58% in secondary schools.

This shows that Irish secondary schools could be doing a lot more to encourage physical activity in young people and this is a pivotal point where teenagers tend to stop exercising.

The benefits for young people keeping active not only include improved aerobic fitness, muscle strength and endurance but improved bone health and weight balance of children aged 3 to 17, and reduced risk of depression for children aged 6 to 17 years. Young people between 6 and 13 can also gain improved thinking and memory skills.

Prof. Mic Gabhainn says: “Parents are absolutely essential. Really many of the initiatives that go on in schools only work if parents are fully informed, if they are engaged in the decisions about it, if parents are included and parents actually volunteer to help out.”

“There are some changes that were not seeing that we want to see, increase in physical activity increase in fruit and veg, but the reduction in soft drinks is very substantial, its nearly halved.”

The decrease in soft drinks could be the influence of Food Dudes, the award-winning curriculum-linked healthy eating programme that has been running in schools since its pilot in 2002/2003. Despite its best efforts to introduce fruit and vegetables however, it seems like it might be an impossible feat against the majority of children’s stubborn aversion to them.

Prof. Mic Gabhainn says there a few other points from the study that should be noted as well as encouraging healthy eating and physical activity:  “We would like to see a greater decrease in smoking, any smoking at all is really, really bad for children, or anybody, it’s the number one killer in the world so we really want that to go down to zero.”

“The bad news is that traditional bullying is up; face to face bullying had increased, it had been stable or slowly decreasing” she said this might be because children understand more what bullying is and are able to better identify it.

It was reported a lot when the study was initially released what children’s happiness had decreased, but apparently this is part of a trend, “It goes up and down, but I think it’s actually been misrepresented especially by RTÉ, I had to send out a tweet correcting it, they were saying that more than half of children were unhappy and that is not the case at all so 33% are very happy  and 34% are quite happy only 2.5% were not at all happy.”

Luckily physical activity is something that can be directly intervened with in any schools and at home.

HBSC is an international study carried out in 47 participating countries and regions in conjunction with the World Health Organisation.

The Irish study provides an insight into the health behaviours of school children in areas such as smoking, vaping, alcohol use, physical activity, food and dietary behaviour, bullying and indicators of wellbeing such as happiness, mental health and life satisfaction.

It is used to influence policy and spending in public sectors, so with the help of parents, schools and initiatives Ireland might just get back on track for the next survey, in four years time.