THE BLOG
08/03/2011 10:24 am ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

Be a Real-Life Hercules -- Stand Up for Kids' Health

Superheroes. They're everywhere these days. And while watching Thor, The Green Lantern, and Captain America at your local movie theater this summer can certainly raise your heart rate, wouldn't it be something if those watching, particularly young people, would be inspired to get their heart rates up while actually exercising instead?

I've had the opportunity to play a super hero on movies and television... first as the Greek mythological god Hercules, and then -- about 7,000 years into the future -- playing yet another hero, Captain Dylan Hunt, in Andromeda. Playing a hero was lots of fun, but, more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to receive letters from kids from all around the world saying how the shows made them start exercising and inspired them to get involved in more positive things. And as a mere mortal, my passion has been, and always will be, to inspire young people to live healthy and active lives.

As a kid, I was very fortunate. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis. We didn't really have much money -- my dad was a teacher, we had five kids, so I remember powdered eggs and powdered milk, and getting my brother's hand-me-downs. But I played sports, had great mentors, and never felt left out. All because I had parents who cared, a community that cared, and a neighborhood filled with people who really cared about all the kids that lived there.

Today, I don't believe our society is taking good care of our children. We're cutting education, letting go of teachers, eliminating physical education and often recess... all at a time when our kids need it most! Especially with the current statistics on obesity and the growing number of related health costs that we as adults are paying now and our kids will continue to pay in the future. The obesity epidemic is real.  It's the leading public health problem for children and adolescents in the U.S. and more than 12 million kids between the ages of two and nineteen are overweight or obese. That's one in every six. If the current trend continues, by 2015 it's going to be one in every four. Also, roughly two million U.S. children are extremely obese. Through health care costs, loss of work, and so on, obesity is costing our nation $117 billion a year. Not million. That's $117 billion dollars, and it's rising.

In fact, if we don't take action to reverse obesity right now, the children in this generation are not expected to outlive their parents. That's never happened in this country. We've always increased life expectancy. Our children should be living until they are 100. There are many factors that contribute to the obesity crisis, but for many Americans, it simply comes down to what you eat and physical activity -- calories in/calories out -- something that kids need to learn at a young age. Otherwise, they could be destined to become one of the statistics and not have the quality of life they deserve.

How can our youth possibly focus on learning if they are forced to face these serious health issues? They can't learn and succeed if they're not healthy and getting the amount of physical activity and good nutrition they need.

Exercise improves learning, concentration and memory. Research shows physical activity links with academic achievement to produce future success.

We all want our kids to be honest, to be responsible, and to make smart choices in their life for their health, for their education, for their future. As they grow older, we want them to be a positive influence on those growing up behind them. I've seen firsthand how organizations, such as my non-profit, A World Fit For Kids! (WFIT), play an important role in youth development and teaching healthy lifestyle choices.

WFIT's afterschool programs provide positive outcomes for kids and have truly changed their lives, all without financially burdening families, schools, districts or states. The data verifies that WFIT students are becoming better decision makers, attending school more regularly, improving their grades and scoring higher on standardized tests. In fact, the teens completing the WFIT training and internship program have a 94% graduation rate, in a Los Angeles district with a 47% graduation rate! Plus, they're becoming advocates and healthy role models and mentors for younger kids, a winning combination that changes both lives in the process. This is why I serve on the WFIT board and continue to speak out on behalf of healthy kids. It's also why I believe we should support and expand the number of quality afterschool programs that help get kids moving and making healthier choices.

Our children are our future, and it's time for ALL of us to speak out and take an active role in turning around the downward trend in our children's health and their ability to succeed. With the upcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization, we have an opportunity to do something about it! By this I mean we can make sure all kids have opportunities to be physically active through physical education and recess, and also expand after school programs that directly address student engagement, youth development and obesity reduction with proven, positive solutions.

Be your own superhero and push for policy and expenditures at the federal, state and local levels that promote healthy lifestyles for our children. Every $1 spent on prevention strategies yields us a savings of more than $5 in healthcare costs. The smartest investment we can make is to direct our limited dollars into promising intervention programs, physical education, health education and afterschool programs that promote healthy behaviors. When our children and teens are supported in living healthy, active lifestyles, then they truly will be ready to learn and thrive in school, in work and in life!