I sit on the board of GENYOUth, a foundation dedicated to getting physical education back into U.S. schools through a partnership with the National Football League and America’s Dairy Farmers, under the banner “Fuel Up to Play 60.” At present, under 10 percent of pre-schools, grade schools and high schools offer daily physical education. In fact, only 20 percent of schools offer daily recess to allow kids to run around.
Dr. Selwyn Vickers, Dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, spoke to us today. He provided stunning findings:
- Fifty percent of African American and Hispanic kids, and 25 percent of white kids, are obese.
- A normal Body Mass Index must be achieved by third grade or a child’s intellect begins to deteriorate.
- Children who can’t read by the third grade are 60 times more likely to wind up in prison.
- The African American male is the only demographic group with a decreasing life expectancy; this group has the highest rates of HIV and death due to violence.
- Only 20 percent of children in poor neighborhoods score 3 or more on any Advanced Placement test, versus 60 percent in middle- and upper-income areas.
- One-third of people over 65 years old are now showing signs of dementia — this is far more than prior generations and is linked to obesity.
- As many as one-third of children in America are in food shortage situations, coming to school hungry. Weekends, without a school lunch, are particularly difficult.
- The problem is poverty, not rural versus urban.
He concluded his presentation by saying, “I don’t want a child’s past to predict the future.”
In the ensuing debate, a few important points were established:
- Schools are short of funds for physical education; our foundation has provided flag football equipment for 9 million kids to date, and the demand continues to rise.
- We need to fix the problem of “food deserts,” areas that lack nearby quality food options for families.
- The offer of free breakfasts for children in poverty is taken up only half of the time. The social stigma of being the “poor kid” and the late arrival of school buses is a problem.
- Companies need to get involved. PepsiCo has changed the equation on school breakfast by paying for 100 mobile carts that stop by the classroom ($7,000 each) and solve the stigma issue by offering food to all.
- Health insurers must change the equation; otherwise, health expenditure could take up to 30 percent of GNP by 2030 when Baby Boomers are all in their 70s and 80s. Kaiser Permanente already finds that 10 percent of their clients use 70 percent of the medical resources. Insurers are now intervening to solve small problems; e.g., making sure that insulin is taken for diabetes.
We need to broaden our scope on health to well care instead of sick care. We should move in the direction now embraced by Weight Watchers, which is a life of wellness, premised on proper diet and regular exercise. We must also deal with stress before it leads to dangerous behaviors such as opioids. When I was in middle school in Chicago, President Kennedy launched the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. We were to get fit to beat the Russians. That meant pull ups, sit-ups, pushups, and wind sprints in order to earn my blue shorts at Latin School. Now the enemy is ourselves. I love Dr. Vickers’ line about the value of exercise in school: “We need to teach kids about grit and resilience. That means they can get up when they are knocked down and they can return to normal after confronting adversity.” Since government is not going to take on this challenge, it is up to companies to do it. Whether through GENYOUth or another NGO, let’s help kids be active every day.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.