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comment Lockdown carries a huge price tag - right now, we are a ticking timebomb in terms of physical and mental well-being

Obesity and mental health issues were already major problems - now we face a catastrophe

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While elite GAA resumed last year, ordinary members of the public couldn’t resume sport.

While elite GAA resumed last year, ordinary members of the public couldn’t resume sport.

While elite GAA resumed last year, ordinary members of the public couldn’t resume sport.

Eurydice reported that there were fewer hours of compulsory PE classes in Ireland than in any other EU or developed European country

Like everybody else in Ireland, I'm tired, frustrated, and cranky.

I bite my lip every time I hear another medical expert assure us there is light at the end of this pandemic tunnel.

I want to believe them, I really do.

I'm not a Covid-19 denier. I accept this was a new pandemic and no magic bullet exists to deal with it.

So, largely, it has been a case of trial and error as NPHET and the government attempt to grapple with the world's first pandemic in a century.

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The GAA and other sporting bodies have been very responsible,

The GAA and other sporting bodies have been very responsible,

The GAA and other sporting bodies have been very responsible,

The central plank of the strategy has been lockdown - we're now into our third version in 12 months.

According to a recently-published Oxford University study, Ireland has the eighth most stringent lockdown regime in the world and the toughest in the EU.

As a strategy, it is very narrowly focused - its only aim is to reduce the speed at which the virus spreads.

The jury is still out on whether it was a success or whether there was any viable alternative.

However, what is undeniable is lockdown carries an enormous price tag in terms of its impact on a wide range of other health-related issues.

Take your take pick from: anxiety, stress, loneliness, over-eating, alcoholism and gambling.

All these issues have been parked. But they cannot be swept under the carpet forever.

The exit strategy needs to have a plan which has physical activity in all forms, from organised sport to physical education in schools, at its core.

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Return of LOI soccer gave fans reason to smile. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Return of LOI soccer gave fans reason to smile. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Return of LOI soccer gave fans reason to smile. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sport is one of the casualties of NPHET's policies which I believe will cost us dearly in the long term.

Elite sport in the form of professional rugby, horse racing, greyhound racing, hockey, League of Ireland soccer and Gaelic games - for a limited period last year - could continue.

Their role in lifting the spirit of the nation should never be underestimated.

Better still, allowing these sports to continue did not result in a surge of cases among those taking part. Indeed, there are no known transmissions of the virus between players while on the field.

The governing bodies also played their part, insisting that everything was done to the letter of the law.

But the policy on sport was too narrowly focused. It catered only for the elite, in a limited number of sports.

Let's not forget that virtually all the indoor sports - such as basketball and boxing - have been wiped out for a year now. They have taken an awful hit based on scant scientific evidence.

The result is that we have turned into a nation of couch potatoes - and that's threatening to become an even bigger issue than the Covid-19 pandemic.

All the focus now is getting youngsters back on the playing field which is very important.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

We need to open the nation's swimming pools and gyms as soon as possible. These facilities are owned and run by responsible people who will ensure that all regulations are adhered to.

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Hockey stars Duke and Evans. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Hockey stars Duke and Evans. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Hockey stars Duke and Evans. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

We need to focus as well on the thousands of grass-roots adult players across all the sports, who simply play for the enjoyment it gives them.

Being virtually idle for 12 months means they have been deprived of the benefits which social interaction through sport brings. It's better than any pill.

Unless these groups can resume training shortly, teams will disappear as players will opt against coming back - which will leave many sporting clubs struggling to survive.

But there is a bigger issue at play here. What about most of the population who are not involved in participation sport? Let's call this group the Ordinary Joe and Joan Soap.

Long before we heard of Covid-19 there was another pandemic stalking this country. It's called obesity.

Granted it is a slow burner compared to Covid-19.

But I'm prepared to wager a bet that in ten years' time, when the statisticians crunch the numbers, more Irish people will have died as a result of obesity than from Covid-19, unless of course we change our habits.

The figures are stark. Six out of 11 Irish people are overweight, and 23 per cent of the population are obese.

The World Health Organisation forecasts that levels of obesity among Irish males will rise from 26 to 48 per cent and among females from 23 to 57 per cent in the next decade.

Ireland will be the second most obese country in Europe by 2030.

The Institute of Public Health recently published a study about physical activity among older adults in Ireland.

Two-thirds of the over 50s have either low or medium level of physical activity.

Another key finding was that middle-aged and older adults with higher levels of physical activity reported greater participation in social activities, better self-rated health, better quality of life and a lower loneliness score compared with those of a lower physical activity.

Then there is the nation's children. Again, the figures are shocking.

One in five Irish children is obese. And it's simply a rule of thumb that most obese children turn into obese adults. All this will result in an enormous financial burden to the state.

According to a UCC study, childhood obesity will cost the government over €7 billion in the coming years.

Last week's Sport Ireland's Adolescent Girls Get Active report made worrying reading. Only seven per cent of girls between the age of 12 and 15 get the daily recommended levels of physical activity.

In other words, 93 per cent of this group are not getting enough exercise - which spells big trouble down the line.

Frankly, I'm not surprised.

In 2013 the EU Education Network, Eurydice, reported that there are fewer hours of compulsory physical education classes in Ireland than in any other EU or developed European country.

We're right at the bottom of the league table but I didn't need an EU report to tell me this fact.

Sadly, little has changed since I first taught physical education at post-primary level, 45 years ago.

The problem begins at primary level where physical, education is pretty much non-existent.

Unless youngsters have sampled organised sport when they start their post-primary education, they're basically a lost cause.

At post-primary level PE is a box-ticking exercise. It is largely ignored in the senior cycle, where everything is focussed on the race for points.

Granted physical education is now an optional subject at Leaving Certificate level, but I can't see that making much of a difference.

The situation has deteriorated in the last 12 months with students at home for long periods and no organised sport in school. I doubt if too many schools have even bothered to have PE classes.

All those reports I quoted were compiled pre-Covid-19, so it's fair to assume that we have now dipped into crisis mode.

Let's be honest, most Irish people have been physically inactive for the last 12 months.

Obesity levels have ballooned with a corresponding growth in related physical and mental-health issues.

This is the hidden cost of the pandemic - and the lockdown.

Let's not cod ourselves into thinking we're a fit, healthy and active nation. We're not.

We're the exact opposite - a ticking time bomb in terms of physical and mental well-being. Chemists freely admit that their biggest-selling product these days are now anti-depressants.

We have ignored or brushed all those issues under the carpet for 12 months now.

In terms of our exit strategy from the pandemic we need to have a new approach to physical activity and mental health.

In the past we had a lot of useful initiatives but a lack of linked-up thinking.

Now we need a whole government approach to physical activity, with inputs from all departments.

Ireland needs to get on the move with a 'Be Active, Be Alive' campaign for ALL the people, regardless of age or gender.

And it needs to begin as soon as this lockdown ends.

Otherwise the pandemic will look like a teddy bears picnic compared to the crisis which will engulf the health services in the next decade if we don't tackle our obesity levels.

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