The Leaving Certificate is putting the long-term health of students at risk as physical fitness is sacrificed for exam preparation, according to health and fitness expert Professor Niall Moyna.
A recent study has demonstrated a steep decline in fitness levels among secondary school students, particularly girls, after the age of 15. Prof Moyna attributes this decline to the clamour for CAO points that characterises the Leaving Certificate.
“We are seeing a direct link between the drop in participation and the increasing number of children aged from 16 to 18 years not meeting the minimum level of fitness required for optimal health,” Prof Moyna, who specialises in clinical exercise physiology at DCU, told the Irish Independent.
This trend is evident from transition year onwards, with Prof Moyna explaining that parents do not seem to be aware of the relationship between childhood fitness and long-term health.
He rebutted the idea that prioritising study over exercise improves exam results.
He provided a 2014 study that tracked the fitness levels of over 80,000 students across five years. It found that children who partook in physical activities had better academic performances than those who didn’t. They also had increased concentration and reduced stress levels.
“A school that thinks there is something more important than children’s health- I would be very interested in talking to that principal,” he said.
Prof Moyna oversees the annual Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge, the largest national surveillance study on the fitness of 13 to 18-year-olds. Last September, 185 schools and 24,167 teen students signed up for the challenge.
However, while 9,000 13-year-olds took part, only 1,300 17-year-olds got involved. Prof Moyna said that seven years of data have allowed them to analyse the trends in this data, and the biggest concern is this age discrepancy.
“This is a major national issue, and the big question is why are schools and parents letting this happen? Instead of managing health implications as they arise, we should be trying to prevent them.”
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Ireland, and is associated with an increased risk of dementia. Prof Moyna has called for continuous assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness to be mandatory in secondary school.
Furthermore, the number of CAO applications has increased this year, with more than 73,000 people applying for university. This is an increase of just over 400 applications.
Image Credit: Alison Clair