At the launch of the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge at St. Stephen’s Green, were campaign partners Thomas Barr and Mary-Kate Slattery with Gwen Corrigan and Liam Beaumont from Sandymount Park Educate Together. (Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

The importance of physical activity for better cardiovascular and mental health amongst young people was highlighted at this week’s launch of the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge.

The proven link between childhood fitness and long-term physical and mental health is the key focus of this year’s challenge, with the goal being to educate and equip young people with the skills and knowledge to incorporate exercise into their daily routine, to help improve and maintain both physical and mental health.

Ireland’s largest study of mental health for those aged between 12–18 years, revealed that rates of severe/very severe anxiety among adolescents have doubled to 22% in 2019, up from 11% in 2012.

The major recent study of 19,000 young people – ‘My World Survey 2’ – found those who participated in sports experienced better mental health than those who did not.

Young people who played sport were less likely to experience severe/very severe anxiety (19%) compared those who do not play sport (32%). The same pattern is seen for severe depression.

Speaking at the launch, Professor Barbara Dooley, UCD School of Psychology, and Principal Investigator of the Survey said, “We are in the midst of a mental health crisis which is having a massive impact on our young people. Whilst undertaking this research we found that the mental health of secondary school students can rapidly deteriorate in the years from first to sixth year.

“Depression and anxiety are two of the major problems affecting students in Ireland today. Amongst other things, the statistics point to a link between being physically active, through sport for example, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. This positive link between the benefits of physical activity on mental health is what we are highlighting in this year’s challenge.”

The Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge focuses on preventive and proactive health – to find out more, visit