Almost 1 in 4 children in Ireland are obese or overweight. These are the alarming statistics according to The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative Ireland (COSI). Ireland has the highest rate of obesity in Europe.
A study conducted by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada has shown that out of the 3.2 million people over the age of 20 in Ireland, 58% in this age bracket are considered overweight or obese with around 1.8 million being at risk of dying early due to obesity related conditions. On the research, Professor of Medicine at McGill University, Dr Steven Grover, said;
‘The pattern is clear, the more an individual weighs and the younger their age, the greater the effect on their health, as they have many years ahead of them during which the increased health risks associated with obesity can negatively impact their lives.’
The World Health Organisation defines obesity as a disease in which excess body fat has accumulated to an extent that health is adversely affected. Obesity develops from a lifestyle of overeating and lack of exercise. If the calories we receive from eating are not used up, the body stores them in fat.
Prevention of obesity in Irish children is needed. It will have a huge impact on their health in the future. Physical education is something that will help lower obesity rates in children. While children are being taught about healthy eating they are not being given enough education towards exercise. 4 out of 5 children in Ireland do not meet the Government Physical Activity Guidelines which is 60 minutes per day, bearing in mind that Irish primary schools only have one hour per week allocated towards PE.
On average Irish primary pupils have about 37 hours of PE throughout the school year, comparing this to France who have 108 hours of PE a year. France is known for their slender figures and only 1 in 10 adults are obese or overweight, compared to 1 in 4 adults and children in Ireland.According to the European Union’s education network Eurydice, Irish primary schools have the least amount of hours allocated towards PE, while every other country in the EU is demanding a minimum of 45 hours per year. In a recent Irish Primary school Principal Network (IPPN) survey of around 1,000 Irish principals, 85% said PE should be allocated more time.
Fine Gael Senator, Catherine Noone has been very vocal in her campaign against obesity in children and has urged schools to consider making half an hour of PE a mandatory daily requirement. She has said on the issue; ‘We need to help prevent our current generation of children from becoming overweight adults.’
President of the Physical Education Association of Ireland, Fergal Lyons, has said that Irish schools are not providing enough PE. “Children used to be able to get their exercise from running around, playing games and climbing trees. That’s no longer the reality, but the Irish education system is so academically driven that it’s been too slow to respond to these changes.”
So could there be a link between the lack of physical education in Irish primary schools and obesity in adults? A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills told me;
‘Physical activity by pupils is not the sole remit of schools. PE in schools is designed to complement activity outside of school. The Department of Education and Skills, in conjunction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is currently engaged in a significant reform of the primary school curriculum. There will be a public consultation on the future shape and content of the entire primary school curriculum in early 2016. This will provide all interested stakeholders with an opportunity to inform the future development of the primary curriculum. As well as promoting physical activity among their pupils, primary schools also promote healthy eating through healthy lunch policies, and through curriculum areas such as the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme.’
When I asked the Department of Health about this issue, they believed it was a matter only for the Department of Education and Skills and did not comment.
DCU Professor Niall Moyna is an advocate for physical education in Ireland and he believes that Ireland is not developing appropriate sport and exercise in primary school children and, as a result, is now a “third world sports nation”.
Weight is a sensitive topic to us all; however 50% of parents do not recognize that their child is overweight. W82GO healthy lifestyles programme at Temple Street Children’s Hospital is a weight loss programme for children and adolescents, which gives the right support and encouragement for losing weight and eating healthy.
It was established in 2005 and it is delivered by a multidisciplinary team comprised of a paediatrician, dietician, nurse, chartered physiotherapist and a clinical psychologist.
The W82GO states that; ‘Physical activity is medicine! Physical activity and movement is essential for healthy child growth and development. Your child needs activity everyday to make sure that his/her heart and lungs develop properly, to make sure that his/her bones and muscles are strong and so that he/she can play as much as possible. Every child needs at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day and this activity should be moderate to vigorous in intensity. This means that they should be doing 60 minutes of activity that makes them start to sweat and get warm.’
A parent whose child attended the programme said; ‘he now does exercise daily and is able to choose healthy food with no fuss.’
Exercise is a hugely important part of losing weight. It is impossible to stop children from eating all bad foods so the easy way to counteract weight gain is more exercise and physical education.
For more information:
 Get Ireland Active: The National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland. Available at:http://www.getirelandactive.ie/content/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Get-Ireland-Active-Guidelines-GIA.pdf
 Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit Not Fat. Available at:http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/49712339.pdf