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Opinion

P.E.: As American as Apple Pie

Supporting P.E. in grades K through 12 is one of the most patriotic things you can do.

That’s right. Because supporting physical education in America’s schools is among the most effective steps we can take to ensure that in the coming decades our military will have enough physically fit recruits in times of national crisis. It’s also an essential way to secure the future health of our nation.

Yes. Your kids’ P.E. teachers are national leaders. And you need to support their efforts.

Since the years of World War II, the percentage of overweight and obese youth has increased significantly. Today, nearly one in four young adults are carrying too much weight to enlist. And obesity is among the leading reasons why most 17-to-24-year-olds (70%) cannot serve, according to a Mission: Readiness report. As distressing, 12 percent of active duty service members are obese, up 61 percent since 2002.

When thousands of volunteer recruits need to lose at least 20 pounds to enlist, it means that that same number of active military are at a greater risk of re-gaining the weight after basic training. This means more injuries and even dismissals due to excess weight and lack of fitness. In fact, stress fractures and serious sprains within the military are on the rise—stemming, at least in part, from inadequate physical activity in adolescence. The problem is so significant, indeed, that Mission: Readiness cites that there were 72 percent more medical evacuations to Germany from Afghanistan and Iraq due to these types of injuries than due to combat wounds.

The culture and physical environment in which American children and adolescents are growing up have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. In decades past, kids would be outside running around, playing games, and riding their bikes for hours on end. The “draw” of modern technology and screen time was never so strong. What’s more, everyday life simply required more movement.

When kids and adolescents exercise regularly, it helps build healthy bones and muscles, helps control weight, improves strength and endurance, increases self-esteem, and reduces anxiety and stress. Research even shows that regular exercise gives kids an academic boost. There’s evidence, too, that regular exercise may help behavior.

Yet, almost 3 out of 4 high school students don’t get the recommended 60 minutes each day of physical activity, according to a 2013 CDC survey. The kids were asked if they’d participated in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey. About 15 percent hadn’t gotten the recommended 60 minutes on any day of the previous week. And not even a third (29%) had attended P.E. class daily. In fact, in 2013, more than half of high school students didn’t have any P.E. classes at all in an average week.

Fortunately, it’s not just the military taking note of this dearth of exercise. Legislators on Capitol Hill are concerned too. In response, Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA), along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), have taken action by reintroducing the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act in Congress.

The FIT Kids Act gives a boost to school grants across the country so they can start, build on, or make better P.E. programs for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. Importantly, the FIT Kids Act puts back the 37 percent cut that the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) took in FY2015 Appropriations. This is significant—as PEP grants are our country’s only dedicated source of federal funding for P.E. programs. These grants can be used for equipment, support, and the training and education of teachers and staff.

The health of our children has always been an issue of importance. What has changed is this: Obesity and physical inactivity are now threats to the future security of our nation—and to opportunities for our kids’ own futures.

Too many capable and eager young men and women are being turned away by the military because, as a nation, we’ve failed to maintain a culture and education system that sustains their well-being. And the stark reality is, no matter how hard the military try—or how innovative and exemplary their programs—they cannot recreate the formative years of growth and development of America’s youth.

But—as a nation—we can do something.

We can ensure that every child in America has adequate physical education in grades kindergarten through 12.

Whether they ultimately wish to join the military—or contribute to society in some other way—all kids need to be physically active.

P.E. alone may not be the complete answer for solving our nation’s obesity and physical inactivity crisis. But it’s an important—and essential—start.

Let’s work together and take a vital step in keeping our children—and our nation—strong. Let’s support P.E. in schools.