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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 23 Nov 2011

Vol. 211 No. 11

Health Awareness and Physical Fitness: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

recognises that the delivery of an effective Health Awareness and Physical Fitness programme in both primary and secondary schools is essential for the overall well-being of children;

notes that while there is a new Physical Education curriculum in place at primary school level since 1999, it is not being implemented in full in 65% of schools, 54% of those schools citing lack of facilities and 11% of those schools citing pressure of time due to competition with other subjects; (Points for Life — Physical Fitness for a Healthy Life) (November 2011);

notes that overweight and obesity is a serious problem in Ireland and that between 18% and 27% of Irish children are overweight or obese; (Irish Heart Foundation, 2007);

notes that excess non-lean body mass, at a young age is associated with both immediate and long-term health risks and will have significant implications for health-care costs; (Growing up in Ireland, National Longitudinal Study of Children, Overweight and Obesity among 9-year olds (2011) p. 8);

notes that while the status of Physical Education might be equal in law to other subjects, this is not matched in the reality of practice, (Hardman, 2007, 9) and

proposes that the Government under the stewardship of the Minister for Health acts to develop effective and appropriate responses, cross-Departmental, to implement a continuously assessed physical fitness and health awareness programme and regular corresponding health checks to lessen the burden on our health service in the future and improve quality of life.

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, whose presence in the House I consider a personal endorsement of the motion tabled by the Independent Senators. I have moved the motion and I note the Government's amendment. I wish to confirm acceptance of the change therein.

I have a dream, a vision of a destination that I wish to reach with my fellow Senators and colleagues. Our young people are dangerously on the cusp of becoming a lost generation. We are facing a tsunami of inactivity and ill-health. It is our collective responsibility to do something urgently about it right now and I hope that we will do it before it is too late.

My generation was very fortunate to grow up in an environment where we went out to play sports, to run, to kick ball, to play chase and even to play a game of rounders. We did it all for fun and we were naturally fit as a result. Sadly aspects of society have changed for the worse. In general we have lost our sense of adventure and understanding of the importance of proper physical activity. Instead, we have inherited the Internet, the PlayStation, Nintendo, Facebook and so much more convenience at our fingertips that one does not have to leave the comforts of home to communicate, seek food or friends. Our children's interpersonal skills and interactions with one another are diminishing. We have entered a faster, more dynamic pace of life, full of distractions, convenience food and the car culture, which allows less time for what is really important — our health. Life has changed due to a multitude of sad reasons. Even shockingly, children cannot simply enjoy the pleasure of running around a school yard anymore because of insurance issues. What is society coming to? I believe that we must start to teach our children from a young age in a more effective, compulsory, structured and monitored physical fitness learning environment. The public health checks in schools, which currently check eyesight and hearing, should also monitor physical fitness levels.

The emphasis should be on the long-term results and we can start immediately to focus on the short and medium-term objectives, which I shall outline. Through leadership, commitment and cross-departmental co-operation within government, Ireland can be the role model for the health and well-being for the youth of the world in the not too distant future. We need to believe we can and we need to have the vision and commitment to take positive action now. If we collectively act in the Seanad today, we can save "The Lost Generation" and create "The New Generation" of which Ireland will be proud. We need to go back to the future to achieve this.

Our education system has the most sophisticated, underutilised physical education programme implemented since the foundation of the State. Our physical education system is too sophisticated, passive and broad to tackle the serious health problems we face as a nation. It needs to be simplified, interesting, challenging, rewarding and to be fun. It needs specific goals based quality exercise rather than quantity and the results need evaluation on an ongoing basis just like other core subjects in numeracy and literacy skills on the school curriculum. Children need to understand the reasons and the importance of good physical fitness and it should be a constant in their lives.

Perhaps health and well-being is a more embracing and appropriate title than physical education. It more accurately reflects the holistic approach to children's health and fitness that is required in the modern world. Children need to learn and understand simple issues that affect their health such as cardiac disease, diabetes, smoking, drugs, cardiovascular benefits and a range of topics and activities. Physical education is regarded as a fun subject and it is not taken seriously enough. It should be regarded as a serious subject that is fun. Currently, parents can even decide if their children should participate at the whim of a note to the teacher. This would not happen with mathematics or Irish.

The last research in this area was completed in 2010 and this was on top of all the previous research undertaken over many years. I, therefore, undertook qualitative research throughout Ireland for the purpose of this document. I surveyed 171 schools and had a number of meetings with other key people as outlined in the document. I asked teachers where physical education comes on the list of priority subjects in school and they indicated it was near the bottom. When I asked them where fitness rates on the overall scale of a child's well-being, the answer was at the top. In spite of the evidence that increasing time allocated to physical education does not affect students academically, schools report feeling under pressure to prioritise examinable subjects. One way of addressing the issue is to make it a subject which is continuously assessed.

I wish to distinguish that this is not about sports participation; this is about learning, participating and understanding the value of fitness for life and, more important, gaining points for life as opposed to gaining points for college. From my own experience, improving one's physical fitness is not rocket science. It just requires a little common sense and discipline. It also requires the utilisation of existing structures and not large budgets. It needs bundles of determination, not cash.

I will outline the recommendations I am proposing as a result of feedback from the genuinely committed principals and PE teachers on the ground. The remainder of my recommendations can be found in the document I have circulated. The goals are laid out in three phases — short, medium and long term — in order that immediate action can be taken .

The short-term goals I wish to achieve include to establish a working committee; secure cross-departmental co-operation; quality and monitored exercise programmes for 15 minutes every day; structured cardiovascular exercises, including speed walking, running, skipping or even using a hula hoop because of its cardiovascular benefits; and the introduction of a fitness diary or homework book for school children.

My medium-term goals are the employment of fitness interns, where necessary, as classroom assistants under the JobBridge programme; a simplified physical fitness programme developing motor skills and agility, balance and co-ordination, ABCs; and physical fitness to be a core subject with parents having to attend parent-teacher meetings with physical fitness teachers. That does not happen. My long-term goals are to improve the health of our next generation, reduce the financial burden on the Department of Health and for Ireland to be a role model in health education in schools.

I would like to my ask my fellow Senators to stand up for one moment, put their two hands by their sides, close their eyes and stand on one leg. I thank them very much. That simple exercise relates to motor skills. Most people cannot do that for more than two or three seconds. Can colleagues imagine the benefits of that motor skill if one could balance on one leg for 30 seconds with one's eyes closed? Exercise provides the points for life.

It is my pleasure to second the motion. Unfortunately, given our economic circumstances, too often matters such as this are overlooked due to the avalanche of budgetary items dominating our lives and the media. It is imperative that we do not allow this to continue as we will walk ourselves into a set of social crises which will be every bit as serious as the financial crisis we are experiencing. Perhaps one difference from the economic problems we face is we can prevent many of social problems on the horizon without having to lean on our EU counterparts.

Senator Coghlan's motion affords us the opportunity to take proactive steps to tackle the looming obesity crisis and all of us could leave a valuable legacy for future generations. A total of 30% of our children are either obese or overweight and the percentage is approximately double that in the United States. I wish the Minister could have attended Senator Coghlan's excellent briefing in the AV room last night. I went home motivated to start, not to mind start my children. It is clear what we will run into over the next two generations. What has happened in America is happening here.

In the context of obesity, prevention is better than cure. If obesity is allowed to take hold, it will do untold damage. Unfortunately, drugs alone will not solve the problem. What is required to halt the onset of this condition on a wide scale is a cultural transformation in respect of food and fitness. We all must buy in to that transformation. Senator Eamonn Coghlan is not only someone who is in a position to comment on this matter, he is also, in light of his expertise and sporting achievements, of which we are all so very proud, the perfect candidate to head up this transformation. It is worth nothing that a teacher does not have to be an ex-Olympian, Senator Eamonn Coghlan or a physical education expert to motivate children to run, dance, skip, have some fun and work towards a life of health, well-being and great enjoyment. The impressive document with which Members have been presented was designed to facilitate this debate. However, I am of the view that it involves much more than that. The document is an indicator on a map which relates to the route we must take in the context of how we teach physical education and fitness. In addition, it will be key to the transformation to which I referred if we are to stop obesity in its tracks.

I read Senator Eamonn Coghlan's report when preparing for this debate and I must admit that I was dismayed by some of the findings it contains. In fact, it reinforced many of my views on the education system as it stands. In the first instance, the system is completely geared towards the leaving certificate points race rather than being focused on preparing young people to lead happy and healthy lives. The pressure relating to the points race has always been exerted. However, I fear that this pressure will become even more pronounced in light of Ireland's economic position. To use an analogy with which I am familiar, we must stop viewing schools as factories the function of which is to produce students who will continue on to third level. We must return to the drawing board with the objective of producing well-rounded young adults who are equipped for life.

Physical education is a subject which provides us with a platform to redesign the focus of our education system. While the subject, as currently formatted, gives rise to many positives, it is certainly under-utilised or, perhaps more accurately, ignored. It is not an exam subject and I strongly recommend that this be changed as part of the ongoing review taking place within the Department of Education and Skills. Furthermore, budgetary constraints cannot be allowed to stop the reforms outlined in Senator Eamonn Coghlan's report on physical education because the stakes are much too high for them not to be implemented. Ministers or officials who argue that we cannot move to make physical education an exam subject, with broader parameters which encompass aspects of healthy living or life skills, could leave themselves open to charges of being extremely lacking in vision.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan clearly stated that he wants to deal with this matter in bite-sized chunks. However, I do not believe that what is intended will cost a fortune. There is no reason for it to cost very much because as the Senator stated, much of what is involved is mere common sense. If we do not make the report's recommendations become reality, sooner rather than later, we will be faced with a health bill that will be ten times greater than the cost of implementing the changes to which I refer. Sadly, people in Ireland are not great at being proactive. That is evidenced by the events of recent years. Let us get ahead of the curve for once.

We have made a sustained effort to teach our children about the importance of recycling. When Members go home at night, they will be informed by their children and grandchildren as to the bins into which different items of rubbish should be put. They literally boss us around and this has worked. Thanks to my 11 year old daughter, Molly, I recycle everything. If we allow Senator Eamonn Coghlan to take his bite-sized chunks in respect of the fitness programme, perhaps we adults might also begin to profit. When I finished discussing this matter with the Senator last evening, I was terrified and I have decided to begin either running, skipping or dancing this weekend. Imagine the endless benefits we could reap for successive generations by teaching school-going children about the importance of diet, fitness and health. I strongly encourage Members to support the motion.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That'" and substitute the following:

Seanad Éireann:

recognises that the delivery of an effective health awareness and physical fitness programme in both primary and secondary schools is essential for the overall wellbeing of children;

notes that while there is a new physical education curriculum in place at primary school level since 1999, it is not being implemented in full in 65% of schools, 54% of those schools citing lack of facilities and 11% of those schools citing pressure of time due to competition with other subjects; (Points for Life — Physical Fitness for a Healthy Life) (November 2011);

notes that overweight and obesity is a serious problem in Ireland and that between 18% and 27% of Irish children are overweight or obese. (Irish Heart Foundation, 2007);

notes that excess non-lean body mass, at a young age is associated with both immediate and long-term health risks and will have significant implications for health-care costs; (Growing up in Ireland, National Longitudinal Study of Children, Overweight and Obesity among 9-year olds (2011) p. 8);

notes that while the status of physical education might be equal in law to other subjects, this is not matched in the reality of practice (Hardman, 2007, 9); and

proposes that the Government under the stewardship of the Minister for Health explores options for developing effective and appropriate responses, cross-departmental, to implement a continuously assessed physical fitness and health awareness programme and regular corresponding health checks to lessen the burden on our health service in the future and improve quality of life.

This is a very important proposal. The amendment we have tabled to it relates to giving the Minister for Health the opportunity to exploring the options for developing effective and appropriate responses. The amendment has been put forward because in 2005 the task force on obesity issued its report, which contained 93 recommendations. In 2009, another report was critical of the fact that only partial implementation had been achieved in respect of these recommendations. The Minister has established a special action group on obesity and it is important that he and it be given the opportunity to consider both the options available and the best way of putting in place a proactive programme for dealing with this issue.

The reports of the World Health Organization, WHO, on this matter indicate that physical inactivity is identified as the fourth leading risk factor in the context of global mortality. Levels of physical inactivity are rising in many countries and this has major implications in the context of the spread of non-communicable diseases, NCDs, and the general health of the population worldwide. The significance of physical activity on public health, the global mandates for the work carried out by the WHO in respect of the promotion of physical activity and NCD prevention and the limited existence of national guidelines on physical activity for health in low and middle-income countries make evident the need for the development of global recommendations that address the links between the frequency, duration, intensity, type and total amount of physical activity needed for the prevention of NCDs.

The WHO's pamphlet "Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health" states:

For children and young people, physical activity includes play, games, sports, transportation, chores, recreation, physical education, or planned exercise, in the context of family, school, and community activities.

The recommendations to improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, bone health, and cardiovascular and metabolic health biomarkers are:

1. Children and youth aged 5-17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.

2. Amounts of physical activity greater than 60 minutes provide additional health benefits.

3. Most of the daily physical activity should be aerobic. Vigorous-intensity activities should be incorporated, including those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least 3 times per week.

The benefits of being physically active outweigh the harms. Any existing risk can be reduced by a progressive increase in the activity level, especially in children and young people who are inactive.

The Government should lead a keep fit and healthy campaign for a sustained period because this will encourage people to be more health conscious.

Previous speakers have already referred to the statistics relating to this matter. The safefood report indicates that 61% of adults are overweight or obese, that 1.25 million people have high blood pressure, that 206,000 suffer from angina-heart attack, that 92,000 suffer from stroke and that over 210,000 have diabetes. A lack of activity contributes in some way to all of these medical conditions. Obesity can give rise to gall stones, infertility, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. All of these conditions are all connected to a lack of physical activity.

On the RTE programme "Operation Transformation", leaders from different age groups are chosen and are asked to follow a strict diet and programme of exercise for a specific period. These individuals motivate people sitting at home to get out and exercise. Perhaps a similar programme which would expose children and young people to the benefits of exercise and diet and which would be provided in an educational setting could be developed.

The proposer of the motion has clearly done his research and has presented a comprehensive report. What he has done shows how Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas can put forward extremely constructive proposals. It also shows that not all proposals relating to health and education need to emanate from Government. I welcome Senator Eamonn Coghlan's proposal, particularly as it represents the way forward in respect of political debate in the House. The Senator has made a very constructive contribution and, in the context of framing Government policy, it is important that the Minister should give careful consideration to it.

There is no country which provides an ideal comparison but it is interesting nonetheless to consider the position which obtains elsewhere with regard to education. For instance, I looked at one in Scotland which places specific emphasis on healthy living and food and ensuring that young people eat nutritional food, but also there is a proactive programme on exercise and physical activity. We need to develop that within our educational programme, to be more proactive on it and to set out clear targets to achieve within five and ten year timescales. That would be important in the future development of policy in this area.

I thank the proposer and the seconder. I ask that the Minister take on board some of the proposals contained in the report. I accept that he must do further research with his own group, but this is a constructive contribution and it should be given serious consideration.

If the Minister wants to come in now, it is his prerogative. There are other speakers and it is his prerogative if he wants to listen to others first.

I would be interested to stay but, unfortunately, I have other business to attend to.

I thank the Senators for proposing this motion, in particular, Senator Eamonn Coghlan, whose reputation needs no introduction. I welcome a member of his family here today, his brother-in-law, Mr. Con Martin, who is from Skerries and the snooker player, Mr. Ken Doherty.

I support this motion and as I stated, I thank the Senators for raising it. It gives me the opportunity to speak on the issue, which is of immense importance, in which I have had an interest long before I came into politics and on which I had a motion before the World Medical Association on the role of the physician in the treatment of obesity and the area of exercise.

In particular, I wish to state categorically that obesity is a major health problem of epidemic proportions that affects a significant proportion of the population and is, in fact, a ticking time bomb in terms of the health risks it poses, particularly in regard to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the significant burden it places on health spending and the areas that Senator Colm Burke mentioned as well. A substantial part of the solution to the epidemic must lie with a deeper appreciation of the benefits of physical activity and a greater awareness of these benefits to be instilled in the general population, young and old alike. I accept that teaching children at an early age the value of this when they are receptive to it is the place to begin.

The term "physical activity" should not be mistaken with "exercise". Physical activity includes exercise as well as other activities which involve bodily movement and are done as part of playing, working, active transportation, house chores and recreational activities such as gardening. Children and young people take part in various kinds of physical activity, for example, by playing games, participating in different sports and by active commuting. However, a cause for concern is that their daily habits, which have changed in recent years, as Senator Eamonn Coghlan pointed out, due to new leisure patterns such as TV, Internet and video games, have contributed to increasing rates of childhood overweight and obesity. It is far easier for parents to supervise a child sitting in a playroom playing the various computer games than if he or she were out in the street. We all remember, certainly my generation does, that children would take off in the morning and if they did not come home for lunch, parents would not be overly alarmed whereas now if a child is missing for more than ten minutes, everyone is in a state of panic, although, unfortunately, probably with good reason.

The Government is committed to an integrated and cross-departmental approach to addressing this issue. From the beginning of schooling, physical education forms part of the curriculum in primary and post-primary schools. In addition, social personal and health education, which is mandatory for all students in primary schools and in junior cycle, specifically addresses the need for regular exercise, and examines food and nutrition issues and the need for a balanced diet. This is supplemented by the emphasis at second level on balanced eating and exercise in subjects such as home economics and science.

Physical activity, health and quality of life are closely interconnected. Physical activity benefits every aspect of health and quite apart from the physical health benefits, it brings many other social and psychological benefits. There is sufficient evidence to show that those who live a physically active life can gain a number of health benefits including improved self-image and self esteem, reduced anxiety and depression and increased enthusiasm and optimism.

Physical inactivity is now identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. It is estimated to be associated with 1 million deaths — approximately 10% of the total — per year in the WHO European region. It is also one of the leading risk factors for health and is a proven risk factor for the development of many chronic illnesses and is the main cause for approximately 21% of breast and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischaemic heart disease burden, according to the WHO in 2010. The economic burden of chronic disease is considerable, not only for the health system, but also for families and society as a result of reduced income, early retirement, an increased reliance on social care and welfare support and diminished productivity and absenteeism. The World Health Organization in Europe has estimated that a 10% to 15% increase in chronic diseases would reduce a country's GDP by an order of 1% over the next decade.

On the cost of physical activity alone in economic terms, based on studies in Switzerland and the UK, physical inactivity is estimated to cost about €150 to €300 per citizen per year. Even based on a conservative estimate of 10% of the population being inactive here, that would put the cost at between €67.5 million and €135 million.

More than three quarters of the Irish population are not active enough for good health and are consequently at risk of developing health problems. While physical activity is a key determinant of health, many of the other determinants such as education, income, gender and environment influence participation in physical activity. Conversely, an inactive or sedentary lifestyle can influence the other determinants.

As the best cure for ill health is prevention, it is important that healthy and active lifestyles are established as early as possible. Children need to be encouraged to reduce the amount of time spent in sedentary activities such as TV and video viewing and playing computer games. There is no one single solution to increasing physical activity. An effective comprehensive approach will require multiple concurrent collaborative strategies to be implemented. Increasing physical activity is a societal, not just an individual, problem. Therefore, it demands a population-based, multi-sectoral, multidisciplinary, and culturally relevant approach.

Schools are playing their part in promoting regular exercise and healthy lifestyles among students. The state of the nation's children report 2010 ranks Ireland as first out of the 41 OECD countries surveyed in terms of the proportion of children who take regular physical exercise. Children spend less than 25% of their waking hours in school, and it is important that the national strategy in this area should provide a strong focus on encouraging good nutrition and exercise outside of school time.

Although the task force on obesity recommended that every child should be enabled to achieve a minimum of 30 minutes physical activity every day in all educational settings by restructuring the school day, a range of evaluations have pointed to curriculum overload. It will, therefore, be difficult to extend the length of time available for PE. In addition, the Department of Education and Skills has recently asked all primary schools to spend additional time on literacy and mathematics as part of the national literacy and numeracy strategy. To alter the length of the school day will involve major industrial relations issues and could significantly increase costs. The length of the school year in hours at primary level is longer than the international norm, but we must address this issue. I agree we must think outside the box.

There are proposals for reform in junior cycle which provide that: physical education will remain an essential area of learning to be experienced by all students over the three year cycle; the existing range of subjects will be continued, including PE; schools will have the option of providing locally developed short courses of 100 hours duration, including in physical education; and there will be a cap of eight on the number of subjects which can be taken for qualification purposes. The proposals are implicitly designed with a view to freeing time in schools for broader educational engagement by students.

Due to the constraints of the current budgetary climate the scope for curriculum reform is limited and while the priorities in the period ahead are to strengthen achievement in literacy and numeracy, to implement reforms in mathematics, Irish and science, and to progress junior cycle reforms, the issue of exercise at school must be addressed also.

The Department of Education and Skills' 2009 lifeskills survey of 2,225 primary schools indicates that 86% to 95% of primary schools, depending on the class group, are delivering at least the recommended one hour per week of PE, and that activities are being provided across all six strands of the curriculum. However, there is a dominance of games, dance and athletics, with the other strands receiving less attention. The lifestyle skills survey also indicates that in addition to providing PE, some 78% of primary schools and 89% of post-primary schools promote sport outside of school time. Furthermore 97% of primary schools promote healthy lunch policies. Initiatives such as the national healthy eating week, food dudes, and the SPHE curriculum promote the importance of a balanced diet in schools. Sport for all day, the active school flag award, and active school week all promote the key message that regular exercise is critical to health and well-being. At this stage, 750 primary schools and 101 post-primary schools have registered their interest in the active school flag award, and 90 schools have been awarded the flag.

I note the suggestion in Senator Eamonn Coghlan's report, Points for Life, to make PE a mandatory subject, and the comment that students are excluded from PE at the whim of a note to the teacher from parents. It is the policy of the Department of Education and Skills that all students should be offered PE and that every effort should be made in schools to include all students, including those with special needs. I am also aware that schools make Trojan efforts in this regard. Parents who seek to exclude their children from PE generally do so for medical or injury reasons or for reasons of conscience. Schools are not in a position to refuse such requests. Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights requires that the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. This is also a requirement under section 30 of the Education Act. However, teachers should and do take the opportunity to educate parents on the value of exercise for their children.

The provision of multipurpose rooms and outdoor play areas for primary schools forms part of new school building and major extension projects funded by the Department of Education and Skills. At second level, it is the policy of the Department to provide a PE hall as part of new school building projects. These issues are considered as part of the design brief for new schools and of major renovation or extension projects, subject to available resources and overall published criteria for prioritising projects. The schools capital allocation for 2011 amounts to €408 million, for both primary and post-primary schools. These funds will be fully expended by the end of the year. Furthermore, an additional sum of approximately €28 million will be expended on the 2011-12 minor works grant to be issued to primary schools shortly.

The Government's medium term infrastructure and capital investment framework, which was published recently, includes an allocation for education capital of just over €2.2 billion over the five years of the plan. This is an average annual allocation of just over €440 million. In addition to general purpose and PE halls included in major building projects, grants issued to schools specifically in respect of physical education in the amount of €9.5 million in 2006-07 and €16 million in 2010.

The HSE fully supports the SPHE programme and is currently working with the SPHE co-ordinators on its implementation along with a health promoting school model which has been agreed with my Department and the Department of Education and Skills. The HSE also supports the schools through a number of programmes, including action for life; be active after school activity; supporting all local sports partnerships; sponsorship of community games for post-primary schools; the soccer league for boys and girls; active school flag; and other various localised projects and programmes

Earlier this year, I established a special action group on obesity, comprising key stakeholders, including a representative from the Department of Education and Skills, to examine and progress a number of issues to address the problem of obesity. I acknowledge that no single initiative will reverse the trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference. For this reason the group is concentrating on a range of measures, including actions such as calorie posting in restaurants, nutritional labelling, restrictions on the marketing of food and drink to children, the improved detection and treatment of obesity, revised healthy eating guidelines and the promotion of physical activity. The group will liaise with other Departments and organisations as required. While there have been many initiatives and programmes introduced to help people make the healthy lifestyle choices which go hand in hand with good health, there is much more to be done.

As I have often said, the first step to addressing any problem is to recognise it. The HSE is considering opportunistic monitoring of overweight and obesity carried out on a routine basis during health checks. Recently, algorithms for the treatment of overweight and obesity were developed. These tools will make it easier for health care professionals to monitor and treat overweight and obese children at primary care level. The adult algorithm is now available while the one for children is at the final stages of agreement and will be available shortly. The whole issue of overweight and obesity and physical activity and nutrition are intertwined and one cannot talk about one without referring to the others.

There is ample evidence showing that in Ireland, like other developed countries, we have become increasingly sedentary in our daily lives. We know from research that three out of every four Irish adults and four out of five Irish children do not meet the physical activity levels required for health and consequently are at risk of developing serious health problems due to inactivity. It was for this reason that my Department and the HSE developed national physical activity guidelines in 2009. These emphasise the importance of physical activity to overall health and well-being and set out the minimum levels recommended for different sectors of the population. Children need 60 minutes of moderate activity a day. As the Romans used to say, mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. It is well known that exercise produces endorphins in the system that make people feel better, feel well and less likely to suffer from depression.

A dedicated website —getirelandactive.ie — was also developed to become a one-stop-shop for physical activity information. As the aim of the website is to encourage people to become more physically active by creating awareness of the opportunities for physical activity at local, regional and national levels, the main feature is a well-designed search facility that enables users to search for activities happening in each county.

Increasing the physical activity levels of our population would save significant public money by reducing health care costs. Participation in sport improves health, contributes to the economy, builds communities, establishes pride in Ireland at home and abroad, drives tourism and makes us feel good. However, in Ireland, there are still major social and economic gradients between those who do and do not take part. Sedentary behaviour refers to activities that do not involve participation in physical activity and it is a major underlying cause of death, disease and disability.

Walking and cycling are two sustainable forms of transport that improve health and are carbon and cost neutral, yet only four out of ten children walk or cycle to or from school. Adults and children who walk or cycle to school or to work are known to be more active, to use motorised transport less, to gain enhanced health benefits and to develop social capital. Active commuting can help children clock up the required 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity they need. It does not all have to be done at once. It can be built up over the day by doing a number of short bouts of at least ten minutes of activity at a time. Regular moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking, cycling, or participating in sports, has significant benefits for health. For instance, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression. Moreover, adequate levels of physical activity will decrease the risk of a hip or vertebral fracture and help control weight. As anybody here who is a parent knows, the natural disposition of a child is to move and rather than suppress that, we should encourage it.

In 2004, the 57th World Health Assembly endorsed Resolution WHA 57.17 — global strategy on diet, physical activity and health — and recommended that member states develop national physical activity action plans and policies to increase physical activity levels in their populations. The evidence shows that successful approaches to physical inactivity are long term and involve many sectors and agencies. National guidelines alone are insufficient to increase participation levels and work is now taking place on the development of a physical activity plan. The aim of the plan is to give clear direction for the promotion of physical activity in Ireland. A special group, chaired by the HSE, comprising Departments and key stakeholders is currently developing a national physical activity plan in order to provide strategic direction enabling an increase in and maintenance of the proportion of the population in Ireland who are physically active.

Research tells us that the consumption of energy rich, nutritionally poor food from the top of the food pyramid is high among the Irish population. It is clear that people need to be made more aware of the importance of nutrition. My Department has revised the healthy eating guidelines, including the food pyramid, and I will be making these available in the coming months. They will help inform people about the food and drink choices required for health and set out in plain and simple language the food servings the Irish population need to consume to maintain health and well-being.

The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of daily energy should come from added sugar. They have serious concerns over the high and increasing consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks by children in many countries because of their link to obesity, and hence to diabetes, and I am currently considering measures to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks in Ireland. Among the measures I am considering is sending a memorandum to Government shortly regarding a sugar tax on sweetened drinks.

Calorie posting on restaurant menu boards was one of the measures identified by the special action group on obesity as being able to contribute to addressing the problem of obesity. I wrote to food establishments in Ireland last month inviting them to support me in introducing calorie posting in Ireland. It is a simple concept and educates the general population on calorie content of food portions. The calorie content per portion is displayed in the same colour and font as the price and beside the price on the menu board. In that regard we should commend our own restaurant on displaying healthy options.

Another important initiative under way is Your Health is Your Wealth: A Policy Framework for a Healthier Ireland 2012 — 2020. The aim of the public health policy framework is to develop a high-level policy framework for public health to cover the period from 2012 to 2020. Following extensive consultation, drafting has now commenced. It will address the broad determinants of health and health inequalities through our health services, community and education settings. It is anticipated that the review will identify a number of key lifestyle policy issues such as smoking, alcohol and obesity where further action is required. It will identify practical ways to strengthen working between sectors to promote and protect the health and well-being of all sectors in our society. It is the aim of this process to engage leaders and policy makers across government and society to recognise that improving the public's health is the responsibility of all sectors of society and not just the responsibility of the health service public health workforce.

All the initiatives being considered by the special action group on obesity will form part of the development of this public health policy framework to enhance the health and well-being of all the population.

Being physically active is one is one of the most important steps one can take to improve one's health, whatever one's age or ability. The evidence shows that successful approaches to physical inactivity are long-term and involve many sectors and agencies. We must take a more holistic approach to promoting, maintaining and improving rates of active living. By encouraging physical activity and active living from an early age, the population can reap the benefits into old age. We must ensure that is made possible through supportive policies in health, education, environment, sport and transport, both at national and local levels. I firmly believe that together we can ensure that people can lead more active and healthy lives.

As I am supportive of the motion put down by the Senators I once again thank them for raising such an important issue and giving me the opportunity to appraise the Seanad of the work being progressed in this area. Neither I nor the Government wish to preside over a situation where we are the first generation to outlive the generation behind us. I commend the motion to the House.

I heartily congratulate Senator Eamonn Coghlan on the introduction of this motion. I assure everyone that Fianna Fáil will be 100% behind Senator Coghlan. I am delighted the Senator's family is present to witness his contribution to a debate in the important Upper House of the Oireachtas.

It was a Fianna Fáil Minister in 2007 who was the first Minister in the world to introduce a full smoking ban in public workplaces. I do not know whether many people are aware of what the then Minister did. He had the support of the Cabinet behind him but he drove the issue personally and said it was critical for our health that we have a national campaign encouraging people to give up smoking. I am sure there are many people here who joined in on that. The Minister met a great deal of resistance from our own Fianna Fáil people and from people throughout the country but he was on a mission to ban smoking in public areas and as I said was the first in the world to do that. Ireland has been emulated by many countries throughout the world and are a great example in that regard.

There is an opportunity now for the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, to lead the campaign to improve the physical health and, consequently, the mental health of our young people. The Minister quoted the Romans when he said that a healthy body is a healthy mind. In this case the Minister will get the Irish people behind him but he must get it on the radar, so to speak, that balanced nutrition and physical activity are critical for the physical and mental development of future generations.

It is estimated that currently 300,000 children in Ireland are either overweight or obese and, worryingly, our obesity rates do not appear to be slowing down. Constant media coverage and Government initiatives like the obesity task force have resulted in an ever-increasing public awareness of the problem but the issue does not appear to be resolving. What can we do in that regard? From my participation in the previous Oireachtas I found it was very difficult to get the issue of obesity and physical activity on the radar. There are many organisations passionately doing their best but we must have a national driver, either the Minister or Senator Eamonn Coghlan, to improve the physical and mental health of young Irish people.

First, we need to understand obesity and its health implications. People should be aware that many of the health risks associated with being overweight or obese are not visible, for example, too much fat in the blood and diabetes. Second, we must make parents more aware of their child's weight and what an overweight child looks like. One alarming statistic showed that one out of three parents of obese teenagers believes their child's weight is fine, and three out of four parents of overweight teenagers believe their child's weight is fine.

It is interesting that in any surveys done the awareness of the importance of a balanced diet and physical activity is very much to do with the economic status of parents. Until we introduced the smoking ban less well off people were not aware how destructive smoking was, and I am an ex-smoker. I gave up smoking 20 years ago, although I put on four stone and have not got rid of it yet. I am one of those people who say they will start exercising every day but I have not succeeded yet. I find it difficult to come up the stairs outside the Chamber.

We know it is good for our health to watch our diet and to exercise. We need to get onto the school curriculum that children should be commuting to school. The Minister or Senator Eamonn Coghlan must get it into parents' heads that 30 minutes of exercise a day is required to keep the health standard high because as I said this morning there are dramatic improvements in life expectancy for people with breast cancer, colon cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma survival rates. There is an improvement of ten years life expectancy for people who get those diseases.

Fianna Fáil is a very much maligned party in this House but one of our great achievements was to introduce the smoking ban; it was the first in the world to do it. The Minister should tackle this issue.

While doing a study on a new approach to ageing and ageism, I learned from speaking to consultant gerontologists that they all cycle to work which is amazing. Professor Rose Anne Kenny in Trinity College Dublin and Professor Des O'Neill cycle to work and carry their helmets to meetings. They know it is important to be physically active as one gets older.

I wish the Minister the best of luck. I am a fan of the Minister who made an excellent speech. Having been involved in the previous Joint Committee on Health and Children, he knows his brief. I look forward to Senator Eamonn Coghlan's proposals being delivered.

I welcome the Minister. This is an important debate in which I have a particular interest. I will not refer again to the statistics which have been presented. Suffice to say that obesity is a major challenge for society in terms of obvious health impacts, healthy living, quality of life issues and even employment. It is estimated that physical inactivity costs the economy approximately €1.6 billion per annum. We can only imagine what we could do if such a sum were available to us.

The obvious health impacts of obesity are in cardiovascular and circulatory illnesses. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Irish adults and the country has the highest rate of ischaemic heart disease in Europe for men and the third highest rate for women. A 15 year longitudinal study showed that rates of ischaemic heart disease increased until the mid-1970s before reaching a plateau and entering a period of steady decline. Obesity rates, on the other hand, have increased in parallel with this decline. While more work needs to be done to determine the relationship between obesity and ischaemic heart disease, it is clear that the change in obesity levels coincides with a period of rapid modernisation and associated trends such as a sedentary lifestyle and the proliferation of fast food and convenience food production. It would be great if we could construct our public policy responses around this analysis but, unfortunately, matters are not so simple. While there is no doubt something in this analysis, a great number of other issues have influenced rates of overweight and associated health conditions.

It is startling to note that as many as 200,000 people may be walking around today with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. This is a major problem for the individuals concerned, as the Minister noted. His colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated recently that the current generation of parents face the prospect of seeing their children die before them as a result of obesity related illness. This is a terrible tragedy for a great number of people.

Some 40% of common cancers are in related to being overweight. The curtailment of life opportunities and potential due to weight related illnesses is immeasurable. The problem also has societal implications, however, because aside from the personal costs of obesity, the economic cost is €1.6 billion each year. It is only when one starts speaking of money that policymakers seem to listen. The increased burden on our health service is self-evident, as is the fact that we are storing up problems for the future.

To identify and quantify the problem is half the battle while the other half involves deciding what policy direction we will take to implement strategies to combat obesity. A proper analysis of the problem is vital. As such, we need to examine all aspects of modern living to establish where its root lies. We can look in some unlikely and at first glance less than obvious places, one of which is the planning system. We have not allowed the proper development of footpaths and cycleways in the past ten years, a period in which one third of the housing stock was replaced. We produced a car-based society in which the majority of children are driven to school. As a result of poor planning by local authorities, it is dangerous to allow children to cycle to school, play in the streets and indulge in a range of informal recreational activities which we took for granted a few short years ago.

The planning system allows sports grounds to be relocated from town centres, which were within easy walking distance for most of the population, to the countryside. In many cases, the new locations are several miles outside the town centre in areas where land prices are more affordable. It is bizarre that people need to be driven to places where they can exercise.

We must examine the school curriculum to identify whether the objectives of physical education are being achieved. While education and sports policy overlap in important ways and are likely to support each other, their core orientations are not the same. Other policy areas also have an interest in physical activity. However, in many cases policy goals do not coincide and in some cases they are contradictory. We must examine physical activity facilities in schools, some of which do not even have the basic facilities required to meet the minimum targets.

We need to examine particular groups and whether they achieve minimum standards. We know that children between the ages of eight and 13 years are most likely to be active and physical activity declines during teenage years. All available research shows that boys are more active than girls to engage in physical activity, probably owing to the types of sporting opportunities aimed at particular cohorts of the population. Children are not given an opportunity to walk. This trend may be a response to a perceived increase in crime, particularly in urban areas, despite evidence to suggest the crime rate is declining.

I train a couple of soccer teams in Glanmire where I live. It is noticeable that even very young children are not fit. My club needs to concentrate on fitness in the pre-season, even in the case of very young children, which is remarkable. This is worrying because the patterns of behaviour laid down in childhood influence future behaviour. We can blame the rise of electronic goods and young people spending hours in front of television sets with console in hand. However, the many factors I have cited cannot be viewed in isolation from another.

We also need to consider how food is promoted and who is the target audience for advertisers. Highly sweetened drinks and foods are advertised for the children's market and fast food that is high in calorific content is portrayed in ways that makes it appear cool. We know there is a direct link between intake of carbohydrate containing food and low income households and that this link is price related. This issue must also be considered.

We must examine our cultural norms and ask ourselves if our relationship with food and body image is a healthy one. Needless to say, we must examine our relationship with alcohol. At 200 calories per drink, alcohol is a serious culprit in respect of overweight. We need to consider the problem in all its complexity because the temptation to choose one or other from this eclectic mix is difficult to resist.

I thank Senator Eamonn Coghlan for publishing his report. It addresses important issues and is a serious piece of work which must be taken seriously. I congratulate him on his hard work and diligence. As the Senator noted, education is at the heart of solving this problem. I will not steal from or plagiarise his speech. If we are to achieve success in this area, we must do two things, namely, listen to the experts in the field, of whom Senator Eamonn Coghlan is one, and ensure that policy areas work together to achieve the maximum outcome.

I compliment Senator Eamonn Coghlan on a remarkable initiative. I believe this is the first time this subject has been properly discussed in the Seanad and the Senator also achieved another unique first in getting all Senators present to stand on one leg with their eyes closed. Perhaps this is appropriate because it appears to be the stance adopted by the current Government.

I apologise for my absence during the Minister's speech which was, in its own dull way, a remarkable performance. The only merit it appeared to have is that it was delivered with the same lack of interest that was obvious in the listeners. I will give an example of the reason I say this. The Minister stated: "Adults and children who walk or cycle to school or to work are known to be more active, to use motorised transport less...". Of course they use motorised transport less; they are walking. This statement hardly has the same éclat as an announcement on the behaviour of the neutron in the hadron collider.

The lack of emphasis displayed by the Minister is certainly singularly appropriate, as is the degree of support he so ineffectively provides. I use the word "ineffectively" because he copies every single paragraph except the last one, which is a classic technique I have seen in this House, one that was attacked by the Fine Gael and the Labour Party side when this side was in government. I do not refer to Senator Gilroy because he was not here at the time and is absolutely guiltless — as innocent as an unshorn lamb. The final paragraph of the amendment states it is proposed "that the Government under the stewardship of the Minister for Health explores options for developing effective and appropriate responses, cross-departmental, to implement a continuously assessed physical fitness and health awareness programme and regular corresponding health checks to lessen the burden on our health service in the future and improve quality of life". This is a case of kicking for touch because it means nothing will be done and more reports will be published. Experts will be assembled and their writings will be pored over and nothing will be done. Contained and buried in the Minister's speech is the reason, namely, that it may cost a certain amount of money in the short term, although in the long term it would have significant health benefits and save the Exchequer money. For this reason, I will most certainly remain in the Chamber to vote with the original motion. I usually attempt to be a peacemaker and try to bring the two sides together by securing a composite motion. This time, however, it is important that we vote to support the motion in the names of Senators Eamonn Coghlan, Fiach Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Jillian van Turnhout and Katherine Zappone. I will certainly commit myself to so doing.

I welcome one or two things in the Minister's speech. The first is the establishment of the special action group on obesity. However, lest the Government claim originality on this, let me point out that a cross-party group from both Houses took part in "Operation Transformation" with the late Gerry Ryan. I was involved in that group as the leader and our star performer was Senator Sheahan, who lost a considerable amount of weight through rigid discipline. We actually won that event and we beat the large cab drivers from Galway and the large ladies from one of the suburbs of Dublin. Unfortunately, it is not possible to use the word "fat", although I would quite happily have used it about myself at that time. I lost a mere two and a half stone. It was done through discipline, but as we were all politicians, we decided to continue this by keeping our group together and make recommendations, precisely because we were a cross-party group.

We continued to meet as an all-party group and we came up with recommendations in concert with people who had been researchers on "Operation Transformation". We suggested nutritional labelling in restaurants, which we discovered had been tried in America where it was found there was not much income disadvantage, and restrictions on the marketing of food and drink to children. I would like to see something like that reactivated because the Minister is talking about more experts and civil servants. Practising politicians from all sides, on the back of the excellent initiative of Senator Eamonn Coghlan and the independent Senators, should continue with this.

The report is very significant. I compliment Senator Eamonn Coghlan on meeting so many groups from schools and universities to researchers and people teaching on the ground. There is a reticence among some teachers to teach this if they are not trained. We need more properly trained people. I am also astonished that the Minister states that parents are allowed to opt out on the grounds of conscience. I do not believe that for a minute. What is the problem with conscience? Is it that they might catch the glimpse of an ankle, male or female? I simply do not understand that. I would have thought that exercise was good. The research from Dr. Karim Khan, which shows that physical inactivity kills more than smoking, obesity and diabetes combined, is the most single convincing argument in the entire report.

I come from a very different era to most of those currently in the Seanad. I was in school at a time when we had about half an hour of physical activity. We just raised our arms and did a few things like that. It was not taken seriously at all. I agree with Senator Eamonn Coghlan and his supporters. It should be compulsory.

I was also pleased with another aspect of the Minister's speech. He used a Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano”, which means “a sane mind and a sound body”. I congratulate him on his courage because I have learned that it is politically toxic to make any reference whatever to the wisdom of the ages, classical languages or anything that shows intelligence above the moronic.

This is a very good debate. I congratulate those people involved in it. I am sorry the Government has chosen to restrict it in the way it has. I hope there will be a vote and I will be voting with the proposals of the motion.

On a point of order, we will be supporting the motion. The Senator probably was not here at the time.

I was watching it on the monitor. That is not a point of order, as I am sure the Acting Chairman will point out. That is a point of information, which is not allowed under the rules of the House.

I am not accepting it as a point of order.

For clarification, there is an amendment which the proposers to the motion have accepted. The amendment is of a very minor nature and I already explained it at the beginning.

Fianna Fáil is supporting the amendment.

It is a great moment to have this debate in the Seanad and I would also like to compliment Senator Eamonn Coghlan. Physical exercise is something we can all do and something we can all do cheaply. It is a major argument in favour of health outcomes. It is good for our overall well being. As the Minister for Health said himself, it aids in the release of endorphins, which make us feel better. That definitely contributes to our overall well being and fights depression as well.

I would like to quote some of the greats from the past:

To keep the body in good health is a duty. Otherwise we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear.

It was the great Buddha himself who said that. Here is another quote, "Those who do find time for exercise will have to find time for illness." That is quite thought provoking and it came from Edward Smith-Stanley, who was three times Prime Minister of the UK in the 19th century.

I understand that Senator Eamonn Coghlan has accepted the Government amendment in principle, and I am delighted about that. The only minor point on which we differ is the fact that the Minister has established a special action group on obesity and we are waiting to hear the outcome of that. It will explore the options for developing effective and appropriate responses across Departments. We must examine this across Departments such as the environment, education and health. This issue crosses many different areas of responsibility.

I would like to make three points. There is a compelling argument for everyone to be more physically active, but since 1990, there has been an eightfold increase in teenage male obesity and a twofold increase in teenage female obesity. An eightfold increase in obesity among young males over 20 years is really frightening. Children in the lower end of the social class spectrum are more likely to suffer, due to an unhealthy lifestyle of fast food outlets, cheap manufactured food and very little exercise. "Growing Up in Ireland" revealed two important facts. Children from professional households are less likely to be overweight and obese, and children from unskilled households are more likely to suffer, and this figure is 29% for boys and 38% for girls. Therefore, it is very important that we look at the lower socio-economic group here as a particular group at risk, as well as looking at all children generally.

I would like to speak in favour of education. I started my working life as a primary teacher and I loved physical education. I took a particular interest across the whole school in physical education for a selfish reason. I was so deeply interested in it, and so were the children. We had basketball leagues and other leagues, and they all took to it. The key to physical education in schools, where there are no trained physical education teachers, is to have interested teachers. Teachers must be interested and there must be investment in their skills. This will not be beaten for good models. I have seen great enthusiasm and a desire to be involved when we have somebody who wants to lead this.

Children naturally love activity, as the Minister pointed out. They are naturally competitive. If we told two kids to walk together around the perimeter of a school, they would probably get to the end of the bench before they would be running. It is just in them to go for it. We need to encourage them. We need to make time for it and we need to have the right people promoting it. There is absolutely no point forcing a teacher who has no interest in it or who does not feel good at it, because it will just die a death. However, there needs to be investment.

I am also in favour of physical education being an examinable subject at second level for two reasons. First, many of our children are naturally talented in this area. Physical intelligence is one of the multiple intelligences. We should let the children who shine in that area experience success in examinations as a reward. In addition, if PE were examinable, it could be an incentive for inactive children to be more active. As we saw, 11% of teachers said that time pressure due to other exam-based subjects prevented them from using the programme, so if it was an examinable subject the addition of extra time would be an attraction.

Health is not just linked to exercise, it is also linked to good nutrition. For a long time I have argued for breakfast to be provided in schools. Children who are physically active need to be fed, but breakfast in schools will not only help them in this regard, it will also help them to learn. That would be a key societal change. Not every child likes breakfast at breakfast time but by the time they get to school they could have an appetite.

There is a more I could say about supporting the Minister in terms of calorie counting and paying attention to the sugar and salt contents of food, but I will finish by saying, "Well done" to Senator Eamonn Coghlan. He is leading the way and we are all prepared to follow.

Like other Senators, I commend the Independent group of Senators, especially Senator Eamonn Coghlan, for introducing this important motion. I will start with a little story. Earlier this year, in September, I got involved in boxing, for a white collar boxing tournament. On the first night I found it very hard to get through the warm-ups without nearly collapsing, which is not something I am proud of. When I did PE in school, as it was often centred around football or basketball — sports I had no interest in or natural affinity for — I often sat it out, either with a note from my mother or a conveniently forgotten tracksuit. On that first night of boxing I felt the effects of having been completely sedentary during my adolescence and not having taken part in any physical activity. Since that night I have started to increase my physical activity because I have found something I enjoy. It is not football or basketball but boxing. It combines all sorts of physical activity and I am really enjoying it.

Is it political boxing?

I use it as an opportunity to vent. Physical activity should be a part of every young person's life in some guise or another. Encouraging a person to find an activity he or she is interested in, whether it be a traditional sport, dancing or anything else, is an important part of our task in the future. Physical activity is important, as the motion notes, in the overall well-being of children. I share the concerns of health professionals and user groups about the increasing prevalence of obesity in young children and adults.

While a lot of research has focused on the physical and health benefits of exercise, it is worth noting, as other Senators have, the growing body of work demonstrating that exercise promotes wellness and mental health. Researchers at Duke University in the US who studied people suffering from depression for four months found that 60% of participants who exercised for 30 minutes three times a week overcame their depression without using any anti-depressant medication at all. Physical activity can be viewed as a wellness activity that may actually prevent physical and emotional conditions. It controls weight, combats health conditions and diseases, improves mood, boosts energy and promotes better sleep.

While parents should do everything possible to ensure their children are not putting their health at risk through poor diet and lack of exercise, the State also has a responsibility in this regard, particularly in view of the significant impact the increase in obesity will have on our already overstretched health care system. There are numerous barriers preventing children from adopting healthy lifestyles and the importance of having a balanced diet and regular exercise cannot be overstated in this day and age. While the school curriculum has many positive aspects, there has been some difficulty with implementation. A study on sport in schools funded by the Irish Sports Council found that 19% of primary and 12% of post-primary schoolchildren met the Department of Health physical activity recommendations. As has been said already, girls were less likely than boys to meet the physical activity recommendations; I am a prime example of this. The likelihood of meeting the physical activity recommendations decreased with increasing age. One in four children were unfit, overweight or obese, or had elevated blood pressure. Children who met the Department's physical activity recommendation of more than 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily had the best health profile of all. That is why we need to work alongside teachers, education providers and health care professionals to help children develop physical skills and support a lifelong interest in sport and being active.

Schools are a key setting for children to get their 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity. Given the significant portion of their time that children spend in school, schools should undertake a combination of strategies and approaches to help children to be more physically active, including having infrastructure and policies that encourage and increase access to physical activity for all students, the maintenance of strong physical education programmes that engage students in moderate to vigorous physical activity, and the provision of a variety of activities and specific skills so that they can be physically active not just during PE class but throughout the day, even if it consists of standing up and raising their foot for 30 seconds during a class.

However, many schools do not have the resources at their disposal, an issue we must consider. On wet or icy days it may not be safe to take children outside, and many schools do not yet have sports halls or indoor sports facilities. In 2008 John Carr of the INTO said that the failure by the Department to improve facilities for physical education opportunities in primary schools meant that many children were not even getting the minimum lesson time recommended in the curriculum. He said:

On paper, the time recommended for physical education in our schools is the lowest in Europe. In practice it is far worse than that because in too many of our schools bad weather prevents physical education being taught. This is because too many of our schools lack an indoor facility for PE. In Ireland PE is weather dependent.

I thank Senator Eamonn Coghlan for introducing this motion and I look forward to supporting it.

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I too commend Senator Eamonn Coghlan for his excellent briefing booklet on physical fitness and education. He will have to run home tonight with all the praise he is getting here today.

We are all aware of the importance of a healthy lifestyle and physical fitness to improve our well-being and health, both physical and mental, and our hectic life schedules. We all know how beneficial it is and how good we feel after physical exercise, be it swimming, running, playing soccer, playing football, kick-boxing or white collar boxing. Everybody feels better after some kind of fitness activity. It is vital that we ensure we give our young people the best possible opportunities in both primary and secondary school. As has been mentioned, this is where subjects such as SPHE can tie in with the importance of PE and one can feed into the other. Children can learn the importance of a good healthy lifestyle that will make them healthier in the future and help them avoid diseases such as diabetes and heart disease — which, as has already been pointed out, will save the State money in the long run.

As a former secondary school teacher I am all too familiar with the difficult job that PE teachers often have, not through their own fault but because they must deal with situations — I have seen it umpteen times — such as students coming in with notes to excuse them from PE, sometimes genuinely written by parents and sometimes very well forged, with every excuse under the sun as to why the child cannot do PE. I must agree that would never happen in an examination subject. As a teacher of music, I cannot argue that the core subjects of Irish, English and mathematics were seen as the important subjects, whereas music, art and PE were what we called choice subjects. Some liked PE, some liked art and some liked music.

Often I hear of if not the best then intelligent, well behaved, excellent students claiming they are unable to go to PE class because they must finish their Irish or French. This is all wrong. We should make PE compulsory, as the Senator pointed out. Often the priority of PE in the school curriculum — I can speak for the curriculum at second level — is lesser than for examination subjects. For example, many schools do not offer PE in fifth and sixth year, giving way instead to extra career guidance or religion classes. This sends out the wrong message to parents and students, suggesting PE is not important.

In some schools PE is timetabled haphazardly and this is a significant problem as well. Sometimes PE is timetabled for either the class before what we call "little break" or "big break" or the class after break with lunch time in between. This breaks the whole momentum of the class and, in addition, students may go to the canteen in between the two PE classes for curry chips or a curry butty, often the staple diet. I have no wish to rehearse the issues other Senators have raised.

PE is often regarded as a subject of lesser importance than examination subjects. I admit to times when I sought students for extra classes and often they would attend during their PE class explaining that is was "only PE class". They should have more respect for the subject but it starts at the top. When the schools respect it the teacher respects it and then it will feed down to the pupils. Often, the PE hall is used as the examination hall in schools. Sometimes in cases where examinations are staggered in large schools this can mean that the PE hall is out of action for up to one month at a time and students are sent to the study hall instead. This is totally wrong — because the PE hall is out of action does not mean PE should be stopped altogether.

I meet schoolgoing children and children I have taught previously three or four times per week in my local gymnasium who undertake vigorous exercise regimes but they do not go to PE class in school. This must be tackled. I am unsure what the answer is or whether it is because the facilities are not in place. It would not cost a great deal of money to have some type of exercise regime but I wonder why it is so prevalent. Often I find that students who come to me from PE class are the most energised students.

I thank Senator Eamonn Coghlan for introducing the motion, it contains many good proposals.

I echo the ringing congratulations that Senator Eamonn Coghlan has justifiably garnered today not only for his research and report and for his initiative to bring this important motion before the House, but also for the wonderful photograph in this morning's newspapers of a historical moment, the running of a 4 x 1 mile relay race in aid of the great charity, GOAL. I do not say as much frivolously or simply to bring it up, although Senator Eamonn Coghlan looked well in the picture, but to make the point that the reason the picture is in the newspapers is for a rather sad event, that is, the closure of the running track at Belfield with no immediate plan to replace it other than a vague notion that it might be replaced at some stage in the future by another facility at the part of the Belfield campus designated for sporting activities. While we might be awash with the sentiment of the nice picture and the great cause, there was something sad about the demise of this historic track, the first of its kind in Ireland when it was built.

I was reminded that I had a brave patient — I can mention her name because we spoke openly about her on many occasions — who, sadly, is no longer with us, named Ann Burns. Ms Burns used to run a triathlon to raise funds for our charity every year. One often hears of extraordinary profiles in courage and, by way of anecdote, the only time I saw Ann Burns cry because of her illness was the time I told her that I was not allowing her to take part in the running component of the triathlon one year because she had secondary cancer in her spine. That was the only time I saw this brave woman break down and it reminds me of the courage and camaraderie that can come from sport.

This reminds me of something else relevant to what Senator Eamonn Coghlan is attempting to do today as well. Ann Burns observed my then 125 kg girth and said to me that she was unsure whether I would save her life but that she was going to save mine and she would get me to start exercising. I did so. I used to go to that running track and I shed approximately 20 kg as a result. It is critical to have a culture that prevents people getting to that stage before they must do something about it.

What is the importance of obesity in this debate? Others, including the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, have gone through the medical details and I will not reiterate these, other than to say that we are all aware of the dangers of diabetes, blood pressure and heart disease. However, some people do not appreciate the case outlined by my friend and colleague in St. Vincent's University Hospital, Dr. Donal O'Shea, to the effect that the impact of obesity is approximately the same, as an Irish health burden, as the impact of smoking. We are all aware of what smoking does but the impact of obesity in terms of the years of premature death and lives lost is now approximately the same.

It is critical that we take this matter seriously. Many people are unaware of the evidence in recent years showing that the same risk factors that predispose in the cases of heart disease and diabetes, etc., strongly predispose in the case of breast cancer and that were we to do one thing to reduce the incidence of and death from breast cancer 20 and 30 years from now it would be to prevent obesity. This would probably have a greater impact than screening mammography, which has a very worthwhile impact.

How do we go forward? Previously in the House I brought up the subject of certain core curricular items which, I believe, should be part of everyone's education until they leave school and which they should not be allowed to forego until they reach their 18th birthday. People will use some of these items to matriculate to college while others are items which, if they show a particular skill, they should have the opportunity to develop it.

I would regard others as the basic survival skills of life. Science is one of these. We live in a universe governed by the rules of science and if we are to survive in it we must know how it works. We have a rudimentary knowledge of science. We know that we fall down and not up and we know that fire burns and that water drowns, but it is important to amplify this. One critical part of science is human physiology and as with any science subject one of the most important aspects is the practical aspect. This is why we must regard physical education proposals as not merely about exercise or health, but as a critical component of the survival skills that our education system should encourage people to carry through life.

We should hold a vote on this matter for the reasons Senator Norris mentioned. I am unsure exactly what the procedures are but I suspect we will not have a vote. However, I believe we should do so not because I wish to cause dissent in the House but because of the shenanigans in this House in recent days whereby we have been called for multiple votes. I heard the cuckoo going so often today that I began to think I was Jack Nicholson and that I was ready for Nurse Ratched to come in at one stage. This is a critical issue and we should debate it and vote on it because this is not something on which we should give those in Government, God bless them, any wriggle-room. We should tell them what we expect.

I thank Senators for their time and I thank Senator Eamonn Coghlan for another wonderful advertisement for the Seanad in a two day period during which a documentary video could have been put together and used for the "Abolish the Seanad campaign" — I might have spoken for it myself. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see someone giving us an argument to the effect that the Seanad should perhaps survive and bring an expertise to the House other than that provided by full-time politicians.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch to the House. Like all other speakers I congratulate our colleague, Senator Eamonn Coghlan, on this motion. We are examining two issues: physical education and obesity. I congratulate the Oireachtas Library and Research Service on the excellent document on obesity it put together. It is disheartening to see that in spite of the fact that this is a problem in the entirety of the developed world, it appears not one country to date has managed to roll back the tide of the widening girth of the human population.

There is one aspect to this I would like to highlight, namely, the issue of stigma. A number of studies have highlighted that prejudice against obese people seems to border on the socially acceptable in Ireland. Moreover, obese children are more likely to suffer bullying, discrimination, low self-esteem and poor body image. Like all previous speakers I am in favour of a robust PE programme in our schools.

It is important to deal with the issue of bullying and the perception of obese people generally as being lazy and that, in some way, it is morally reprehensible to be obese. It is a fact that obese children are far less likely to want to engage in physical activity and it can be deeply traumatic for an overweight child to have to undress in public, put on a swimsuit and get into a swimming pool. If we are discussing PE in schools we need to be aware of the impact on overweight and obese children if we propose a programme that will involve a level of compulsion.

A thought occurred to me when I listened to a number of other speakers, in terms of the issues we have around body image. It is not something that happened yesterday or the day before. I heard a story about the time "Gandhi" beat "ET" for the Oscars. The reason given for "Gandhi" having won on that occasion was that he was moralistic, thin and tanned, just like the Academy thought itself to be. The difficulties obese children have with their self-image and bullying is a caveat we need to consider.

A number of studies have correlated obesity with poverty. The fact remains that a trolley can be filled in a supermarket in this country with foods that are high in sugar and fat far more cheaply than fruit and vegetables. It is an unfortunate, sad fact. A number of the proposals related to the taxation of foods with a high sugar content. I note from the report many policy areas that have been examined relating to the treatment of obesity and the OECD findings, in particular, cite the most cost-effective interventions for obesity as being fiscal measures. They consistently show better health gains for the less well-off, particularly if taxation measures are ring-fenced in terms of cheaper foods.

There is no one approach which works. As the Minister of State indicated, we need to examine a number of measures. I would not underestimate the importance of having an active physical regime at an early point in children's lives. The statistics also show that people over the age of 35 in our society, namely, those who were allowed out to play as children, had an active playground life and were kicked out the door and told not to come home until lunch time, are now, pro rata, more obese than the rest of society. There are some significant deeper issues we need to address. I welcome the proposal but it is part of an overall approach.

I thank Senator Eamonn Coghlan and the Independent group for tabling this motion. It is great for the House to have the benefit of his sporting expertise and that he is doing something worthwhile with it. The report was excellent. It was not just a stark reminder; it contained a lot of statistics which were quite frightening on the current position and where we are heading in terms of the obesity epidemic, as well as clear recommendations. It is welcome.

I largely agree with the motion. PE should be given as much time and considered to be of equal value as other subjects in schools. It is worrying to read in the report that does not happen. In a recent survey of primary school children only 35% were timetabled with the recommended 60 minutes a week. The problem is that the amount of time is recommended and not mandatory. It is seen as discretionary or something that schools do after they have done everything else. It should be mandatory.

I accept what other speakers said about facilities in schools. With respect, from 1997 to 2008 a massive amount of money was spent on sporting infrastructure all over the country to which schools should have access. There are crazy situations where schools have no sports halls but are located beside excellent facilities in a GAA or football club which are not being used. It is criminal and we could solve a lot of the issues we have if we ensured community facilities were properly available and used constantly. Some sports clubs are great and have good partnerships with schools but it should be required rather than being at the discretion of those who are willing to make an exception and offer facilities to local schools.

As other speakers have said, schools alone cannot fix the problem. No matter what great work is done in a school children are only there for one third of their waking hours. If they are dropped to school early, fed chips and allowed to sit in front of a PlayStation for the evening, whatever happens in school will not educate them about being aware of their nutritional and health needs.

In fairness to parents, there is a lot of misinformation. Sometimes understanding the nutritional content of food is confusing. Some large multiples have introduced good systems such as traffic light labelling where they point out the fat, carbohydrate and salt content. They also make a distinction between fat and saturated fat and try to help people to understand the difference between good and bad fats.

A package with a red light on it makes it very easy for a person to identify that the food contains 40% of his or her salt intake for the day. It is a clear way to help people understand labels compared to the traditional labels which require know-how to understand them and how they fit in with one's daily allowance. Parents need to be equipped with the information they need. We should consider introducing traffic light labelling. In the past the dairy industry expressed concerns about the fact some of its foods can be seen as high-fat. We can get around that with sophisticated labelling and educating people about good fats.

As Members will be aware our party tabled legislation requiring large restaurant chains to advertise the calorie content of food. It would be a positive step forward. It is important to give people clear, understandable information in order that they can make smart food choices.

It is also important that teachers in schools have the right training. Recommendations were made to bring in specialist primary school teachers. In an ideal world I would love that to happen but I do not see it as something that will be possible over the next few years. I hope that, given the cross-sectoral brief of the Minister of State, she will talk to the Minister for Education and Skills about reviewing primary school teacher training. Teachers have identified repeatedly in reports it is an area where they feel weak and are not confident in delivering the PE programme.

It is something that should be examined in the review. At second level, some qualified PE teachers are unemployed yet there are worrying incidents in terms of timetabling. Perhaps some schools do not take PE seriously and see it as an add-on for a maths, geography or history teacher who teaches ten hours in a main subject and is asked to take a PE class. It is a psyche we need to change. Properly trained PE teachers should teach the subject.

I am concerned about one element of the report referred to by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. The data show that parents of children who are overweight, and the children themselves, do not have the awareness to realise their BMI is too high. There is work to be done in raising awareness, but I am somewhat concerned by the notion of health checks in schools. Consultations with Bodywhys and other organisations dealing with eating disorders may be necessary before embarking on any such strategy. I agree that children need to be made aware if there is a problem with their weight, as do their parents, but we must be sensitive in how we address it in order to avoid creating other problems.

I welcome this excellent report and the helpful debate we have had today. I thank the Minister for taking Senators' views on board.

I thank the Independent Senators for putting forward this motion. Senator Eamonn Coghlan is to be commended for his exceptionally well presented report. It is particularly welcome that a person such as he, an iconic sporting figure, should take the initiative in this regard. We all enjoy watching the television footage of his sporting prowess. People of a certain age like to recall where they were when a particular event occurred. The memory of Ronnie Delaney winning gold at the Olympic Games more than 50 years ago has passed down from generation to generation. There is something in our psyche which embraces the inspiration that arises from observing people being physically challenged in a competitive context. All of that is important in its own right. Senator Eamonn Coghlan is a role model in this regard and it is a pity we do not see him on television more often. There are others who seem to be waiting at the door to have their say on various subjects.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan has gone to the trouble of researching and producing this important report. It often seems that we spend every morning in this House wondering how we can circumvent the Cathaoirleach on the Order of Business and get the opportunity to make a topical point. With this motion, the Independent Senators have chosen one of the most important subjects we could be discussing. I entirely agree with Senator John Crown in this regard. Unfortunately, because of the time of the evening, I would wager, if I were a betting man, that the debate will not feature on tonight's "Oireachtas Report". That is a great pity given the work that went into the report and the exceptional comments and contributions we have heard today, many of them based on experience.

While the motion is directed at schools, the reality is that society itself has changed, as a result of which many of the things we took for granted no longer apply. When I was a child one finished one's school day and immediately went across to the Christian Brothers' playing field. We were automatically involved in sport almost every day after school. That is no longer the case, which is regrettable. We must consider the purpose of this debate. What do we expect to come out of it? Is it a matter of expressing our views on something about which we feel strongly, letting them off into the ether and bringing them to the Minister of State's attention? The Minister, Deputy James Reilly, spoke about the crowded school curriculum. That is not sufficient justification for a lack of action on the issue. The graph in the document in front of me clearly shows that obesity ranks among the greatest risks to health. If it is a matter of life or death, we should revisit the curriculum in order to ascertain whether there has been an incorrect emphasis.

In regard to societal norms and advertising, some Members will recall the various debates in this House on smoking, in which we all accepted that it is harmful to health. In that case, there was also the question of secondary harm. In recent years there have been significant restrictions on the advertising of tobacco products at point of sale. We discussed the issue of alcohol misuse some weeks ago in this House, in the course of which advertising was again raised. There is certainly an argument for a restriction on the advertisement of fast foods. Whenever I am driving during a school break, I see young people standing about with bags of chips. I am not criticising anybody's taste; that is not the issue. The concern is that young people see those types of foods as part of a normal diet. Some part of that message is coming from television advertising and so on. If the statistics are as serious as they seem — they are jumping out at us from this report — we must get back to fundamentals.

Although I am aware that the Seanad is working against the clock, it would be very interesting to schedule a further debate in the near future in order to consider where we go from here. We must reassess the information provided for us. There is no doubt that it is not sufficient merely to talk about obesity, lack of exercise and so on. This issue impacts on every Department. We cannot blame the Government because it is a problem going back over the decades. However, the matter has been brought forward for discussion by way of Private Members' time. We must avail of the opportunity in the near future, whether through Private Members' business, statements or otherwise, to show respect for the work done in producing this report, express our appreciation of that and, above all, treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves. If we do not approach the problem with sufficient conviction we will bediscussing it in years to time, the numbers dying prematurely will increase and we willhave lost an opportunity to take action in line with our responsibility as Members of thisHouse.

It is difficult to know how to begin in responding to colleagues' contributions. I wonder whether it is the first time that everybody in the House is in agreement. I particularly welcome the Minister's statement:

We must take a more holistic approach to promoting, maintaining and improving rates of active living. By encouraging physical activity and active living from an early age, the population can reap the benefits into old age.

That is exactly what I am talking about. The health budget forecast in countries throughout the world in the next 30 years is going in only one direction while the physical education budget may well go in the other direction. The consequences are a cause for grave concern not only in Ireland, but internationally.

We face many hurdles in tackling this issue but, like the athlete who manages all the hurdles on the track, we will overcome them. This is not about obesity, which was mentioned by almost every speaker. Obesity is far too complex an issue, whereas what I am proposing here is simple. Tackling obesity encompasses a range of issues, including diet, advertising campaigns, taxes on sugar and salt and so on. Promoting physical exercise can make only a small contribution to reducing the obesity level; it cannot by itself eradicate the problem. Nor is it just about physical activity. People say to me that playing golf involves plenty of exercise. They are kidding themselves. One does not get any exercise walking 18 holes and most of those who play golf are overweight. I am talking about physical fitness. The young children who train in my club develop motor skills and cardiovascular conditioning. After only three or four weeks they begin growing in confidence. They turn into fine adults who are doctors, nurses, lawyers and professional people, both men and women. I have seen how their confidence grows.

This is about a cultural change, the change we have since the time I used to run one mile to and from school four times a day, accumulating X number of miles per week, and play Gaelic football and soccer. That degree of physical activity among children has diminished in societies throughout the world. It is about developing physical fitness in school. We talk about children spending 25% of their time in school, time which is particularly important for those who are not driven to sports activities after school and are not properly fed by their parents.

They will have to get this on the front line, where they will be taught how to be physically fit, where they will be lectured in nutrition and diet and all the various aspects which we have discussed in this debate. These children will eventually become secondary school students, college students and parents. If we can catch them in infancy and they learn the importance of physical fitness and a healthy diet and nutrition, just as they learn to brush their teeth every morning and evening, we will see the results in the next ten, 15 and 20 years.

The Minister alluded to the opt-out clause for those who, unfortunately, do not wish to engage in physical exercise because of their size. A teacher in a Dublin secondary school said the children whose parents send in excuse notes are the same children who have no problem showing up at a discotheque wearing very short mini-skirts. There is no such thing as opting out.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Seanad, it is a case of changing a culture in order to change and save a generation. I am prepared to take action and I will seek support from the Members of this House. I will keep knocking on the door for as long as I am here.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.