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Counting the health costs of lack of exercise

Posted on the 6th July 2023

Physical Eduation Cuts Exercise

As funding for sports coaching in primary schools in Northern Ireland is cut, Turlough McKenna examines the impacts and implications of lack of exercise on the health of children and young people.

In 2022, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) said not enough was being done by governments to tackle a growing lack of exercise among populations.

In the stark warning, the organization said the cost of failing to get people moving more would be about $27bn (£24bn) a year, with around 500 million new cases of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia occurring globally by 2030 if governments do not take urgent action.

With growing pressures on public spending, nothing, it seems, is immune to cuts. In Northern Ireland, one of the latest areas to be impacted is the delivery of specialist sports coaching and support in primary schools where the Department of Education (DE) has announced its decision to end funding for this initiative.

The school sports programme was delivered by coaches from the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in more than 200 schools and cost around £500,000 annually.

The department has told the sports bodies "no further funding is available” and "difficult decisions have had to be made" to halt funding to a number of third-party organisations.

The move will affect 24,000 children across Northern Ireland and is one of a series of measures by the Department aimed at managing a £14m cut to its 2023/24 Budget.

The IFA and GAA have requested an urgent meeting with the Department's permanent secretary about the decision to end the funding.

The cuts are worrying and with exercise linked to improved mental and physical health, the long-term impacts to both and the resulting costs to support services must be considered very seriously.

Exercise matters

According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Physical Activity in 2002, exercise plays a significant role in helping to:

  • Prevent and/or help manage coronary heart disease, hypertension, and type-2 diabetes
  • Reduce the risk of developing several cancers like Breast and Bowel Cancer
  • Reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The organization stated that 7 to 8 per cent of all cases of cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia could be prevented if people were more active.

In addition, regular exercise has been shown to:

  • Enhance brain health, including cognitive function
  • Strengthen muscles and bone which helps maintain the ability to perform everyday tasks and slow down the rate of bone and muscle loss associated with ageing
  • Help those living with a mental health condition by reducing symptoms caused by tension, stress, and mental fatigue
  • Provide a natural energy boost
  • Improve focus and motivation
  • Decrease feelings of anger and frustration.

The Covid effect

While it may seem like a distant memory to some, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the physical and mental wellbeing of children and adolescents cannot be understated.

Mass lockdowns and closures placed significant barriers to the provision of physical education classes, lunchtime play, opportunities to get active outdoors, and team sports and activities provided outside the school environment.

Even when these were lifted, restrictions on numbers ensured group play and interactions were severely limited and curtailed.

Deteriorating mental health

Childhood and adolescent mental health have become a huge talking point in recent years.

With one in six children aged 5 to 16 in the UK identified as having a probable mental health problem in 2021 compared to one in nine children in 2017, it is easy to see why.

Figures provided by the mental health charity Young Minds reveal that the number of those aged 18 or under attending accident and emergency with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition more than tripled between 2010 and 2018-19.

Many now believe that the pandemic served to exacerbate an already deteriorating mental health crisis in these age groups.

Considering the Northern Ireland angle

Even prior to the funding blow announced last month, the vast majority of schools in Northern Ireland were unable to meet the physical education target of two hours per week.

A 2022 Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report showed that 74 per cent of Northern Ireland primary schools were unable to provide their pupils with at least two hours of Physical Education (PE) each week (ETI, 2022).

These latest cuts to exercise provision in primary schools will only serve to further exacerbate this already worrying situation.

Of course, this isn’t unique to Northern Ireland.

Even prior to the pandemic, many children in England were failing to get the 60 minutes of daily activity recommended by the UK Chief Medical Officer.

In their 2017 report, Public Health England revealed that the number of children getting enough physical activity had dropped by 40 per cent.

What’s the solution?

Childhood exercise is a complex, multifaceted subject.

Clearly, cuts to its provision in schools will impact many directly and could well add further pressures to the healthcare system in Northern Ireland.

Government reforms are required to address the situation and ensure sports and exercise are integral parts of childhood development.

However, there is also an onus on parents, guardians and society to ensure exercise is a regular part of our daily lives.

Northern Ireland is fortunate to benefit from a rich, community-led sporting infrastructure that sees soccer, GAA, hockey and rugby enjoying considerable support and participation.

However, these too are often operating under severe financial pressures.

As we enter the very real potential of a global recession, the realization that we can no longer rely on others for our exercise provision is very real.

Given the much-lauded and scientifically recognised benefits of regular exercise, there is now an overwhelming need to ensure that it remains an integral part of our lives, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and our children to maintain this.

Turlough McKenna is a Graduate Trainee at G&L Healthcare Advisors. 


BBC (Robbie Meredith), 2023, NI education: Education Authority 'reluctantly' submits £14m cuts Available at: [Accessed 09/05/2023]

Cancer Research UK, 2021, What are the benefits of exercise?, Available at: [Accessed 20/03/2023]

Irish News (Suzanne McGonagle), Funding cut for sports coaching in Northern Ireland primary schools ,2023, Available at: [Accessed 03/07/2023]

Mental Health Foundation, 2021, Physical activity and mental health, Available at: [Accessed 15/02/23]

National Health Service, 2021 Benefits of Exercise, Available at: [Accessed 15/02/23]

Public Health England, 2017, Number of children getting enough physical activity drops by 40% Available at: [Accessed 03/01/23]

The Education and Training Inspectorate NI, 2022, A THEMATIC EVALUATION OF PHYSICAL EDUCATION IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS, Available at: A Thematic Evaluation of Physical Education in Primary Schools ( [Accessed 09/11/22].

World Health Organization , 2022, Global status report on physical activity 2022. Geneva. Available at: Global status report on physical activity 2022 ( [Accessed 09/11/22].

Young Minds, 2021, Mental health statistics, Available at: [Accessed 15/02/23]

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