Just half of school kids engage in regular physical activity

By June Shannon Policy News   |   12th Mar 2021

NUI Galway report highlights trends in children’s health behaviours over 20 years

There has been minimal change in the proportion of young people doing regular exercise in the past two decades a new report has found.

According to the latest Health Behaviours in School Aged Children (HBSC) report by NUI Galway, which was released earlier this week, the proportion of young people doing vigorous exercise four or more times a week has remained relatively stable over the past two decades with 52.1 per cent in 2018, compared to 52.6 per cent in 1998.

The HBSC report found that “between 1998 and 2018 there was a small increase in the percentage of girls who reported participating in vigorous exercise four or more times a week, and a small decrease among boys. The trends are inconsistent across age and social class groups.”

Commenting Laura Hickey, Children and Young People Programme Manager at the Irish Heart Foundation, said that while there was a slight increase in the percentage of children taking part in regular exercise, the National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that all children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day.

“It’s important to remember that 60 minutes doesn’t need to be done in one go, small amounts of exercise have health benefits and the 60 minutes can be achieved throughout the day. For children and young people, we encourage a mixture or variety of physical activity including active play, unstructured activities, games, sport activities, walks or cycles,” Laura advised.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that all children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day.

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The report was led by senior researcher Aoife Gavin in collaboration with the HBSC research team at the Health Promotion Research Centre in NUI Galway and it compared findings of health behaviour in school-aged children from 1998 to 2018.

The 2018 HBSC study comprised a nationally representative sample of 15,557 pupils aged 10-17 years from 255 primary and secondary schools across Ireland.

Compared to the findings from 1998, the 2018 study found that fewer children reported using substances, more than half of children exercised regularly, more children were feeling pressured by school work and more children reported feeling low.

There was some good news in that fewer children reported that they currently smoked with 5.3 per cent reporting to smoke in 2018, compared to 22.6 per cent in 1998.

Fewer children also reported that they have ever been drunk: 19 per cent in 2018 compared to 33 per cent in 1998 and there was also a reduction in the proportion of children who reported using cannabis in the last year: 8.5 per cent in 2018, compared to 12.3 per cent in 1998.

In relation to good health behaviours, the 2018 HBSC report noted an overall improvement with more children brushing their teeth more than once a day: 70.1 per cent in 2018, compared to 57.6 per cent in 1998, and more children always wearing a seatbelt in car journeys: 81.4 per cent in 2018, compared to 41 per cent in 1998.

The 2018 report also found that more children were eating fruit with 23.3 per cent of children reporting that they consumed fruit more than once a day, compared to 17.6 per cent in 1998.

It is recommended that everyone over the age of 5 in Ireland should eat up to seven servings of fruit, vegetables and salad every day.

" Creating healthy habits from an early age where they become the norm is one of the most effective ways of protecting the future health of children and young people,"

Laura Hickey, Children and Young People Programme Manager , The Irish Heart Foundation

Overall the HBSC report found that children in Ireland were less likely to engage in health risk behaviours, such as smoking, drinking, and cannabis use, compared to 20 years ago. More children were engaged in positive health behaviours such as daily fruit consumption, regular brushing of teeth and wearing seatbelts.

“However, it is worth noting that young people today are reporting higher levels of school pressure, feeling low and more young people report being on a diet than in the past, especially the older boys. This report presents many positive trends alongside areas of concern, which require further investment, “the researchers noted.

Commenting on the findings, Co-Principal Investigator Dr Colette Kelly from the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, said, “This report is the culmination of many years of work, and brings together some good news about the health behaviours of Irish children with a sustained decrease in substance use for example. There is a continuing positive trend in children communicating with parents and reports of good places in the local area to spend free time. The report also highlights areas in need of improvement in particular more young people are reporting that they feel pressured by school work and there is an increase in the proportion of children who report feeling low. The report provides a breakdown of age, gender and social class patterns which provide more in-depth information on each of the indicators.”

According to Laura Hickey, “today’s report highlights the need to look at children’s health through a holistic lens where we consider the social, emotional, physical and mental health of a child and look at contextual factors such as the local environment. It’s positive to see a decrease in risky behaviours; however, diet and exercise have seen minimal improvements, and this is something we’ll need to keep a close eye on in terms of the prevention of heart disease and stroke.  Creating healthy habits from an early age where they become the norm is one of the most effective ways of protecting the future health of children and young people.”

The HBSC is a cross-sectional study conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe. It runs every four years. In 2018, 45 countries and regions participated, collecting data on health behaviours, health outcomes and the social contexts of children’s lives.

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alcohol HBSC NUI Galway physical activity research school children schools smoking young people

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