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Opinion: 'Children need to learn the importance of exercise from their parents'

The most important message parents can give their children is that any form of activity is better than nothing at all, writes Dr Sarah Kelly.

Dr Sarah Kelly

KIDS GROWING UP in a home where they see their parents prioritising their physical and mental health are more likely to adopt to this way of life.

They will view it as the norm and something that is a significant part of everyday life. 

But as a working mum of two small children, I completely understand how difficult it can be to fit physical activity into a busy week.

As parents, we need to be aware of how our behaviours can positively or negatively influence our children. We all know it’s not possible to be the perfect role model but teaching our kids to take care of their health from a young age is one of the most valuable things we can do for them.  

Setting the foundations for good heart health in adult life undoubtedly begins in childhood. The more active you are as a kid, the more likely you are to be active as an adult.

It’s crucial to establish the habit of being active when you’re young. Adopting new behaviours, or trying to change old ones, later in life can be extremely difficult. 

On a national level, there is a decline in physical activity amongst Irish teenagers and time spent engaged in sedentary behaviour is increasing. A worrying trend, as it’s widely documented that sedentary behaviour in youth tracks into adulthood. 

With reduced activity levels, we are seeing poor cardiorespiratory (aerobic) fitness levels among children. Children with low cardiorespiratory fitness levels are at an increased risk of developing lifestyle-mediated diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression and some cancers later in life.

Last month, Irish Life Health launched the Schools Fitness Challenge – a national initiative, designed to assess and improve fitness levels among Irish secondary-school students. This ongoing project is the largest fitness study of its kind in Ireland and is now the third largest in the world.

A major and concerning finding from it is that more than a third of 16-year-olds in Ireland are already at risk of poor cardiovascular health. This is a trend that is reflected across both genders with 34% of girls and 41% of boys not meeting the minimum levels of fitness required for optimal cardiovascular health. 

Most worryingly, the data reveals a steady decline in fitness levels as students’ progress through post-primary education. Compared to their older peers, significantly more first year students (92% of 12-year-old girls and 81% of boys) are meeting the minimum fitness level required for good cardiovascular health. 

One of the most positive findings from the challenge data is that small changes can have a big impact on our health in a short period of time. First year students who completed the challenge improved their fitness levels by an average of 8-10%. So, in just six weeks, they can significantly improve their cardiorespiratory fitness.

The biggest improvement was seen in low-fit teenagers, which demonstrates the effectiveness of early intervention for low-fit, at-risk youth. Even if you are starting from a very low fitness level, remember that in a short space of time you can make an enormous difference to your health. 

I’m very grateful that I was involved with a number of sports when I was younger, and I developed the habit of being active from a young age. Over the years, I have enjoyed the positive benefits of fitness, both physical and mental. But it’s important to remember getting active does not need to involve structured exercise.

Show your kids that you don’t need to park outside the door of the supermarket or that rather than wait 20 minutes for a bus to arrive, it’s no big deal to walk the 30 minutes to your destination.

Don’t be afraid to raise your heart rate as you go about your day. 

On top of the many physical benefits for us, and the reduction in the risk of developing so many lifestyle-mediated diseases, being active also helps us to manage our stress levels, sleep better and lowers our risk of depression and dementia.

We need to make it a priority and show our children that it is a priority. Our activity must not be the first thing we cut from a busy day. 

Whilst team sports may not be for everyone it is imperative that we encourage our kids to find a form of physical activity they enjoy because enjoyment is crucial to continuing an activity long-term.

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There are so many different groups, classes and fun activities to choose from.

Sometimes, apprehension or nerves about starting something new can hold people back, especially if they are coming from a low-level of fitness. My advice would be just go for it and sign up for something new.

After your first time, it will never be as scary again. Yes, initially the new activity might be tough, but remember every time you do it, you are getting fitter and stronger and there will come a time, maybe sooner than you think, that you will enjoy it.

Once anyone makes that important decision to get active, they need to figure out how it will fit it into their life.

There are many simple changes that will make a big difference and can easily be incorporated into family life. If time is an issue, you can incorporate three 10-minute bouts of activity divided up throughout your day.

Start with 10 minutes of body weight exercises or yoga in the morning on your bedroom floor before you hop in the shower. Dedicate the first 10 minutes of your lunch break to some form of activity that increases your heart rate, before sitting down to eat. Then finish off your day with a brisk 10-minute power walk before dinner.

The most important message parents can give their children is that any form of activity is better than nothing at all. 

Dr Sarah Kelly is an exercise physiologist and lecturer in the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU 

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Dr Sarah Kelly

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