The largest study of participation in sport and exercise ever conducted in Ireland was published today (18th December) by Minister for Sport Michael Ring. “Keeping them in the Game”, commissioned by the Irish Sports Council and compiled by ESRI researchers, provides evidence for policy from three large nationally representative surveys of activity, covering everyone from primary school children to older adults.

In launching the report Minister Michael Ring highlighted “the importance of having research of this quality in order to inform important policy decisions around trying to increase the number of Irish people taking part in sport throughout their lives.”

The report highlights the growing evidence linking low levels of physical activity to poor health and focuses on why people take up and drop out from sport and exercise activities at different life stages.#

Key findings include:

  • Almost all primary schoolchildren engage in regular sporting activity – it’s what happens after that stage that is a cause for concern
  • Many children drop out of regular activity during the second-level years, especially girls
  • School exams have a strong negative impact: students participate less in exam years and this has a lasting effect on whether they are active in later years
  • Students who play sport get, on average, better Leaving Certificate results
  • Activity as an adult is less related to attitudes and beliefs than to life events: most adults believe sporting activity is good for them and want to be more active, but leaving education, work commitments, relocations and family responsibilities lead many to drop out
  • Cycling and, in particular, swimming, are most likely to persist into later adulthood; Gaelic games meanwhile have a high drop-out rate
  • New sporting activities are mostly taken up through social connections with friends, colleagues and family members; finding facilities is not a barrier
  • These factors lead to a widening socio-economic gap as people progress through adulthood – the less well-off are more likely to drop out from sport as young adults and less likely to take up new activities

The study discusses a number of policy implications.

Speaking at the launch, Kieran Mulvey, Chairperson of the Irish Sports Council said: “The Irish Sports Council has made increasing participation in sport and physical activity a key strategic priority. It is vital that we and our key stakeholders have access to this type of research to underpin our efforts in this regard.”

John Treacy, Chief Executive of the Irish Sports Council acknowledged “the thought provoking report which will help us focus in terms of strategic priorities”

Report author Dr. Pete Lunn of the ESRI said: “The findings imply a need to change the way we think about promoting sport and exercise. We are good at getting children involved – it’s keeping people involved as they get older that is the problem. The evidence suggests we could focus more on the major transitions in people’s lives and try to make it easier for them to continue to be active.”