Results from the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge reveal that boys are 42% fitter than girls

Irish girls are less likely than boys to meet the minimum current physical activity recommendations for optimal health – this is according to new research launched by Irish Life Health as part of its awards ceremony for the 2016 Schools Fitness Challenge. Worryingly, the gender gap widens as boys and girls progress through school; in 4th year, boys are 42% fitter than girls, as opposed to 1st year boys being 32% fitter than girls.

Over a quarter of all Irish secondary schools signed up for the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge in 2016, with 22,764 students taking part (10,935 girls and 11,828 boys), more than in any previous year. Students also experienced a significant improvement in their fitness levels after just six weeks of exercise training, with first year boys (+11%) and fourth year girls (+14%) showing the biggest improvement levels overall.

The 2016 winning schools came from Monaghan, Kerry and Dublin. Mathew O’Leary from Bunclody Vocational School, Wexford & Louise O’Dowd from Presentation Secondary School, Milltown, Kerry were awarded overall fittest boy and girl in the programme.


Pictured today at the awards ceremony for the 2016 Schools Fitness Challenge are (L-R) Thomas Barr, Irish Track and Field Athlete and 2016 Athlete of the Year, Matthew O’Leary (Winner of Fittest Boy), from Bunclody Vocational School, Louise O’Dowd (Winner of Fittest Girl) from Presentation Secondary School and Ashling Thompson, Cork Camogie star Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan            


Congratulating the winning schools Jim Dowdall, Managing Director at Irish Life Health said, “The Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge is a national health initiative designed to assess and improve fitness levels among Irish secondary students with the aim of improving overall health.  We are extremely proud of this challenge as we are all aware of the relationship between participation in sport and its impact on a child’s current and future health. The importance of initiatives that help teenagers improve their fitness and health is clear and we congratulate all the schools that participated in the challenge”.

Now in its fifth year, the data from the challenge has enabled the creation of the first ever standardised fitness norms for Irish secondary school children.  This will allow Irish school children to evaluate and rank their own fitness levels in relation to age and gender specific normative data.

The programme was overseen by Prof. Niall Moyna in the Centre for Preventive Medicine, Dublin City University with a total of 126,162 secondary school students taking part from 2012 – 2016. The challenge was created with the aim of making physical fitness a national priority and to encourage young people to be proactive in adopting a healthier and more active lifestyle.

Prof Niall Moyna said, Any form of physical activity is better than none. We should move away from the rigidity of the current PE curriculum to short periods of physical activity that encourage senior cycle students, particularly girls to stay active.  The new Junior Certificate PE curriculum is a paradigm shift that is long overdue and, if properly resourced, has the potential to have a profoundly positive impact on the current and future health of Irish teenagers.”

Commenting on the benefit of physical exercise and the growing gender gap Dr. Kate Kirby, Head of Performance Psychology, Irish Institute of Sport said, The physical, psychological and social benefits of sport and exercise have been well documented, but unfortunately as this Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge shows, we still see reduced participation levels in Irish adolescent girls compared to boys. Numerous reasons have been put forward to explain this, including losing interest, limited time, perceived lack of competence in competitive settings and fear of appearing “uncool” or “unfeminine”.

“The findings of this initiative prove that significant fitness gains can be made in a relatively short period of time, thereby increasing the schoolgirls’ confidence and motivation. The project has also given the participants the opportunity to establish ongoing personal, specific and measurable fitness goals, which are critical to maintaining continued participation. Some additional considerations that may reduce female adolescent drop out from sport include the provision of single-sex physical activities, de-emphasising competition and increasing opportunities for social interaction within the sporting environment. Finally, the benefit of promoting positive athletic female role models cannot be underestimated.”


2016 Schools Fitness Challenge Awards Ceremony, Croke Park, Dublin. Pictured at the awards ceremony for the 2016 Schools Fitness Challenge are Thomas Barr, Irish Track and Field Athlete and 2016 Athlete of the Year, Conall McHugh, Christopher Flood, Bradley Maguire (Winners of Fittest School) from St Macartan’s College Monaghan, GAA Director General Paraic Duffy and Ashling Thompson, Cork Camogie star. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan


To coincide with announcing the winners of the Schools Fitness Challenge, Irish Life Health also surveyed PE teachers to get their views on their students’ participation in PE – and a whopping 96% of teachers believe that their students fake excuses to get out of PE class.

The Irish Life Health survey among PE teachers also revealed that the top excuse in the country is students saying they aren’t well (63%), followed by students saying they forgot their gear (23%). Sadly, 71% of teachers feel their students avoid PE as they are just uninterested in doing physical activity.

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