As severe anxiety and depression increase in those aged 12-18 years, the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge highlights how exercise has a positive impact on mental health.
- Major recent study of 19,000 young people* finds those who participated in sports experienced better mental health than those who did not. Young people who played sport were less likely to experience severe/very severe anxiety (19%) compared those who do not play sport (32%). The same pattern is seen for severe depression.
- Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge focuses on preventive and proactive health. It shows that small steps through a six-week fitness programme can make significant, impactful changes and increases fitness levels by an average of 10%.
- Now entering its ninth year, over 200,000 students have participated in the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge making it the largest national longitudinal surveillance study on the fitness of secondary school children in Ireland and the third largest study of its kind in the world.
The 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge was recently launched at St. Stephen’s Green. Attended by Irish Life Health campaign partners Thomas Barr and Mary-Kate Slattery as well as Professor Niall Moyna, DCU, and Professor Barbara Dooley, UCD, the launch highlighted the importance of physical activity for better cardiovascular and mental health amongst young people.
The proven link between childhood fitness and long-term physical and mental health is the key focus of this year’s Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge. The goal is to educate and equip young people with the skills and knowledge to incorporate exercise into their daily routine to help improve and maintain both physical and mental health.
“My World Survey 2”, is Ireland’s largest study of mental health for those aged between 12 – 18 years. The study revealed that rates of severe/very severe anxiety among adolescents have doubled to 22% in 2019, up from 11% in 2012.ⁱⁱ
Speaking at the launch, Prof. Barbara Dooley, UCD School of Psychology, and Principal Investigator of the Survey said, “We are in the midst of a mental health crisis which is having a massive impact on our young people. Whilst undertaking this research we found that the mental health of secondary school students can rapidly deteriorate in the years from first to sixth year. Depression and anxiety are two of the major problems affecting students in Ireland today. Amongst other things, the statistics point to a link between being physically active, through sport for example, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. This positive link between the benefits of physical activity on mental health is what we are highlighting in this year’s challenge.”
Commenting on the positive link between exercise and mental health, Prof. Niall Moyna, from the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU, who oversees the Challenge, said, “Over the last eight years, the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge has proven that substantial improvements in cardiovascular fitness can occur after as little as six weeks of regular exercise. A recent study carried out over five weeks where participants took part in low to moderate exercise saw a significant reduction in depression and anxiety.ⁱⁱⁱ Aside from the obvious physical health benefits of physical activity, it is proven to also have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. In a review of nearly 90,000 adolescents, physical activity is associated with decreased concurrent depressive symptomsⁱⱽ. It is vital that we place a greater emphasis on exercise in secondary schools especially as children progress through school when exam and other social pressures increase.”
Liz Rowen, Head of Marketing at Irish Life Health said, “The Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge is core to our values of helping people to look after their health in a proactive way. It has been proven that health behaviours adopted in your teenage years directly influences how fit and healthy you are later in life which is why we are so passionate about getting young people involved in physical activity. In addition, the evidence linking exercise to improved mental health should make this initiative even more relevant to young people, teachers and parents.”
Irish Olympian and long-term Irish Life Health partner, Thomas Barr said, “Exercising benefits your physical health as well as your mental wellbeing. I’ve always used my athletics as a break from studying – nothing cleared my head like getting out for a training session with my friends. It’s so important that teenagers start exercising now and have fun doing it, to ensure that healthy lifestyle habits are established early on and the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge is a great place to start.”
Irish Life Health campaign partner Mary-Kate Slattery, Law student and amateur boxer hopes highlighting the long-term health benefits of fitness will encourage secondary school students to take part. She says “I personally struggled with mental health during my early teenage years. I truly realised the power of physical movement as a form of stress release when I started boxing. It gives me such relief, allows me to express myself and to escape day-to-day stresses and overall, I feel stronger both physically and mentally. If my story can inspire even one student to get involved in sport or any form of movement, I would be delighted!”
To find out more and to register for the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge, visit: www.irishlifehealth.ie/fitnesschallenge