Physical education in schools is critical for national security

Third graders play "Turkeys in the oven" during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary NC on Nov. 22, 2016.
Third graders play "Turkeys in the oven" during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary NC on Nov. 22, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

There has been much written recently on the issue of childhood obesity. It is a national public health epidemic, and the rates of overweight and obesity are especially high here in North Carolina. But a group of more than 700 retired admirals and generals who have organized under the banner of Mission: Readiness believe that childhood obesity is not just a public health problem, it is also a national security issue.

According to the Department of Defense, 71 percent of all 17- to 24-year-olds across the country are unable to serve in the Armed Forces. Here in North Carolina, that figure rises to 72 percent of young adults of prime recruiting age who are unable to serve. The leading disqualifiers are obesity, lack of education and serious records of crime or drug abuse. In fact, more than one-third of young adults nationwide are too overweight to serve and handle the physical tasks that military service demands.

In 2010, I retired from the United States Army after 38 years of service. During my career, I had the immense pleasure to work closely with some of the finest men and women the United States has to offer, and I cannot stress enough the strength and courage required to serve.

As a commander at all levels, I encouraged my soldiers to do the very best in every aspect of soldier skills. I would not expect my soldiers to max the PT test if I didn’t. It was always lead by example for me. In our schools and communities, we must do the same in all areas of training and nurturing.

Childhood obesity is seriously impacting the military’s ability to recruit, and it has a significant impact on those already serving. That’s why Mission: Readiness is fully engaged in the fight to reverse the trend, and why it is critical for our national security to ensure North Carolina’s students are receiving quality physical education in schools.

And it’s important to start early. Daily physical education has been shown to decrease the odds of a child becoming an overweight adult by as much as 28 percent, and children who are overweight at ages 10 to 15 have an 80 percent likelihood of becoming obese by age 25. PE teaches the health-related benefits of regular physical activity, a critical part of maintaining a healthy weight.

Unfortunately, many students in North Carolina are not getting the physical education they need. Evidence shows that elementary school students should receive 150 minutes of PE per week and that middle school students should receive 225 minutes of PE per week, but our state has no requirements for the minimum number of PE minutes per week for these students.

This lack of PE is one of the drivers of the state’s high obesity rate and low physical fitness and can impact academic achievement as well as readiness to serve in the military. When adequately offered, PE addresses the needs of the whole student and can have a positive impact on their physical, emotional and mental health.

If we are to succeed in preparing today’s young people to do the work of our nation, we need to ensure that children are given every opportunity to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. But to accomplish this, we need a partnership between parents, communities, schools, policymakersand other important stakeholders to promote active lifestyles so that more of our youth adopt lifelong healthy living habits.

Requiring regular physical education in schools is one concrete way we can improve children’s health. Working together, we can ensure that our obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.

Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Blake Williams is a member of Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan organization of retired admirals and generals strengthening national security by ensuring kids stay in school, stay fit and stay out of trouble.