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Opinion: 'An active child does not necessarily mean a fit child'

Unhealthy children are one of the biggest risks to a nation’s health, writes Professor Craig Williams.

Professor Craig Williams University of Exeter

THERE IS A huge wealth of research to show that cardio-respiratory fitness (CRF), or endurance fitness, is an important marker of young people’s health. Improved CRF is clearly linked with reducing obesity associated cardio-metabolic risk such as diabetes, certain cancers and mental health.

However, for the last two decades, there has also been a shift of attention on how fit people are towards just measuring the amount of physical activity people are doing – it’s very important that we don’t confuse the two as there is a stark difference.

An active child does not necessarily mean a fit child. Parents want what is best for their child, so I think we need to better assist them to understand how fitness contributes to children’s health, and how participation in positive physical education greatly helps to set them up for a healthy body and mind for life.

Risk to nation’s health

In plain terms, unhealthy children are one of the biggest risks to a nation’s health. There is an extensive amount of research that demonstrates how low fitness is associated with ill-health and will lead to much of the same in the future. Also, having a good fitness level in your youth significantly lowers the risk of a heart attack and death due to cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

That’s why it’s imperative we start providing our children with the physical education tools they most need now, so they’re equipped to protect their future health.

We urgently need to start creating more relevant, preventative exercise-related strategies for our children and teenagers – these are as important, if not more, than the healthcare system in place to reduce and prevent disease or illness in adults.

HIIT is an exceptional way to boost fitness

Exercise interventions to improve fitness are often too short and lack adequate intensity. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become a common “buzz-word” for fitness in recent years, and the research backs it up as an exceptional way to boost fitness.

Over the last 30 years at Exeter, research from our group has shown that HIIT training, which involves performing short bouts of vigorous intense physical activity, can stimulate healthy blood vessels, burn fat and improve the amount of fat and sugar in the blood. In addition, performing intensive physical activity is important for improving cardiorespiratory fitness and these health benefits can be achieved in as little as 10-30 minutes of vigorous intense activity per day, activities which cause rapid breathing and elevated heart rate, such as running, cycling and traditional sports games.

In reality, while it may appear like a new trend, HIIT training genuinely mimics the natural movements of children – highly active, then resting, in turn – providing both physical and mental stimulation.

A school-based approach

School-based PE programmes are a great way to set children up with good habits that can last a lifetime, and the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge is one such example.

Designed to assess and improve fitness levels among Irish secondary-school students, nearly a quarter of all secondary schools participate and it shows through a six-week period, fitness and exercise habit changes can begin. It fits well with many international countries who are also trying to use a school-based approach to enhance health and well-being for our young people.

A great example of a country that works hard to provide its youth with relevant activity and exercise-related strategies is Denmark. What we see in Denmark is that over 80% of 7-15-year-olds participate in organised sports, with approximately 7 in 10 children and adolescents actively commuting to and from school, this is compared to just over 3 in 10 children walking or cycling to school in Ireland.

I was recently part of the team that worked to revise Denmark’s current physical activity guidelines, where we aimed to provide children with more physical activity in their school day – among other revisions, this will now be provided through longer PE classes.

PE linked with higher academic achievement

While some parents may be concerned that time spent on sport or PE may distract from academic studies, it has been shown that increased time in physical education in schools is not associated with a negative impact on grades or performance – instead some studies have shown higher academic achievement.

Additionally, there are psychological benefits – sport has been linked to improving control over symptoms of anxiety and depression, alongside building self-confidence and providing a positive environment to build social skills and a sense of camaraderie.

The Irish Life Health School’s Fitness Challenge campaign showed that while the recommendation is for schools to provide at least 2 hours of PE per student per week – 90% of secondary schools fall below this. With the countless mental and physical benefits associated with a healthy body, both now and throughout children’s lives, I hope that the campaign call-out helps to spur teachers, children and parents to better engage and support PE improvement in Irish schools. The time to act is now.

Professor Craig Williams, is Director of the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre (CHERC) at the University of Exeter. He was in Dublin for the launch of the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge, which has had over 125,000 secondary school students taking part since 2012. 

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Professor Craig Williams  / University of Exeter

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