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Exercise proves to have positive impact on students’ mental health

AS severe anxiety and depression increase in those aged 12-18 years, the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge has set out to highlight how exercise has a positive impact on mental health.

A major recent study of 19,000 young people found that 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 per cent) compared those who do not play sport (32 per cent). The same pattern is seen for severe depression.

The 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 per cent.

 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 launch of the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge was attended by Irish Life Health campaigners Thomas Barr and Mary-Kate Slattery as well as Professor Niall Moyna, DCU, and Professor Barbara Dooley.

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 per cent in 2019, up from 11 per cent in 2012.

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.

“While undertaking this research we found that the mental health of secondary school students can rapidly deteriorate in the years from first to sixth year.

“This positive link between the benefits of physical activity on mental health is what we are highlighting in this year’s challenge.”

Professor Niall Moyna, from the Centre for Preventive Medicine at DCU, added: “Over the last eight years, this challenge has proven that substantial improvements in cardiovascular fitness can occur after as little as six weeks of regular exercise.

“A recent study that was carried out over just five weeks, where participants took part in low to moderate exercise saw a significant reduction in both depression as well as anxiety.”

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