It was Thomas Jefferson who said, "A child who is not physically well cannot learn." His words could not be more true today, as childhood obesity in the United States reaches epidemic proportions, jeopardizing not only the health of our kids, but also their academic development.
What exactly does "epidemic proportions" mean? It means 25 million obese children in the United States. It means a childhood obesity rate that has tripled since 1980 and continues to grow. It means that health-threatening high blood pressure among youth is on the rise, and cases of juvenile diabetes are skyrocketing. And it means that diseases once thought limited to aging Americans are creeping their way into the lives of children and adolescents.
Something has got to change. Not only is the health of our children at risk, this nation is already spending $117 billion a year on obesity related healthcare costs.
Increasing physical activity is the most important component of any initiative to combat childhood obesity, but the need for physical education in our schools is often overshadowed by the need to raise test scores to meet federally mandated academic standards. Add that to a lack of resources, and many schools are being forced to cut back on PE programs. Between 1991 and 2003, enrollment of high school students in daily PE classes fell to just 28 percent.
The irony is that increased physical education is often exactly what schools need to achieve the necessary academic progress. Research shows that healthy children learn more effectively and are higher academic achievers. In short, in order to develop healthy minds, you need healthy bodies.
Physical education must be made a priority in public schools, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization offers a great opportunity to do that. That's why together with Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), we recently introduced the "Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids (FIT Kids) Act," (H.R. 3257).
The bill would add physical education to the multiple measures for determining accountability under NCLB, offering schools another way to meet their adequate yearly progress while promoting physical activity and nutritional education for students. States would be measured on their progress toward meeting a national goal for required physical education recommended by the Centers for Disease Control of 150 minutes per week in elementary schools and 225 minutes per week for students in middle and high schools.
The bill would also engage parents and the public by asking all schools, districts, and states to report on students' physical activity, and would help faculty and staff learn new ways to promote kids' healthy lifestyles through professional development opportunities. Finally, it will authorize a study and pilot program to support effective ways to combat childhood obesity and improve healthy living and physical activity for all children.
By ensuring that our schools are providing comprehensive physical education, we can give every child - regardless of their background - an opportunity to learn healthy habits and get moving. Exercise can act as an effective anti-depressant, especially for children. The more people we can encourage to be physically active in their lives and take better care of themselves, the better off we will be as a society. By the fourth grade, every child should know there are adverse consequences to a sedentary lifestyle. In doing so, we will also see the benefits in their math and reading test scores, get to the root of the obesity epidemic, and get kids on a healthy path early in life.
If we are going to get serious about combating childhood obesity, we must enlist everyone in the effort - especially our schools. We simply cannot afford the economic and societal costs of childhood obesity, and strengthening physical education in schools could be a big step in reversing the trend lines, and saving lives.