Galway school wins big as part of the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge

Gort Community School took the top prize in three categories at the recent Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge.

The school was named Ireland’s Most Improved School, Fittest Mixed School, and Overall Fittest School in the country, as part of the 2017 challenge. Results from the challenge also revealed Galway is the fittest county in Ireland.

More than 30,000 students throughout Ireland took part in the six week challenge, and 2017 marked the first year more girls participated than boys. Results also showed that girls outperformed boys over the six-week period, with an average fitness improvement of 16 per cent, in comparison to six per cent in boys. This boost in cardiorespiratory fitness is proven to significantly lower risk of chronic diseases.

Gort Community School PE teacher Aoife Lynskey said the whole school had risen to the challenge. “Over the last number of years the whole school, including all the teachers, members of staff, and the students, have really put a huge effort into increasing physical activity levels with a range of different and fun activities such as marathons, Zumba, and Taekwondo," Ms Lynskey said.

"We’ve seen how eager the students are to get involved in the challenge, and in turn how supportive the teachers and parents are. We’re thrilled to have won and that their efforts have paid off. Now we just want to encourage them and all the other students around the country who took part to keep going.”

Now in its sixth year, more than 172,000 children have participated in the challenge to date, making this the third largest fitness study of its kind in the world.

The Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge analyses shuttle run performance, which is recognised as an excellent tool to screen youthfitness levels.

The challenge measures cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF ) – low CRF increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while improving CRF is associated with a reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimers.

Professor Niall Moyna, head of DCU's School of Health and Human Performance, who has overseen the Schools Fitness Challenge since its inception, believes the Challenge results are encouraging, but calls for increased analysis of fitness among schoolchildren.

“Continuous surveillance of fitness in children should be mandatory in primary and secondary schools," Professor Moyna said. "The 20m shuttle run test has been conducted across 50 countries in six continents and is endorsed by the National Academy of Medicine in the US as an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness. We need to take this seriously at a school level in Ireland too, as the challenge results show if the right interventions are made, there can be a massive improvement to cardiorespiratory fitness levels in just six weeks.

“There is nothing more important to an individual than their health, and the introduction of PE as an examinable subject this year is an important first step," he added. "However, there is still an urgent need for a stand-alone health science curriculum in schools, to teach young people health literacy and the reasons why long-term fitness is so important to their future health and in preventing them from developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in later life.”

Additional insights from the challenge results show that while participation is at an all-time high, there is a startling drop-off in numbers after Junior Cert, and lowest participation among Leaving Cert students.

A trend towards neglecting fitness in exam years was also identified in a recent Irish Life Health survey with PE teachers. The survey revealed that more than half (57 per cent ) of PE teachers feel students have less interest in PE in exam years, and 59 per cent believe parents are not interested in how their children are doing in PE.

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