THE BLOG
10/03/2013 09:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Physical Activity in Schools is Essential to Reversing Childhood Obesity

For those working to reverse the trend in childhood obesity, there is significant cause for excitement. After three decades of steady increases, obesity rates have, for the first time, remained level in nearly every state in the nation. The news, reported last month by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is indeed cause for celebration. However, the current obesity statistics, particularly those among children, remain dramatic and concerning. This could mean that the current generation of children may live shorter lives than their parents -- a first in this nation's history.

Over the past 40 years, rates of obesity have doubled in 2- to 5-year-olds, quadrupled in 6-to 11-year-olds, and tripled in 12- to 19-year-olds. The causes of childhood obesity are complex and interconnected. The environment created by the intersection of culture, societal norms, media and technology, community assets and practices within the home all influence a family's ability to make healthy choices and to lead active lifestyles. This ultimately affects a child's weight status. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.

As we look for reasons to be hopeful and signs that this battle can indeed be won, we see creativity and innovation fueling a growing grassroots movement that is focused on increasing quality physical activity for our kids. Physical activity and movement are critical components to obesity prevention. Yet, the large majority or our children do not achieve the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity each day. In every community, there is an important setting in which we can take steps to upend this norm -- our nation's schools. Children spend an average of eight hours per day in school, making schools optimal sites for boosting movement and exercise. Experts agree. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report, titled "Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School," which concluded that schools "can and should play a major role in efforts to make children and adolescents more active."

Our schools are focused primarily on academic preparation, and rightly so. Many already feel overburdened with responsibilities that extend beyond that core mission. But what is grabbing the attention of principals and superintendents nationwide is a growing body of evidence that supports the notion that prioritizing physical activity in schools has the potential to enhance not only health-related outcomes, but also all the positive outcomes we seek for our students: academic performance, behavior and discipline, and social cohesion. We know that kids are designed to move. We know from academic studies and from spending time in classrooms that active students do better. Beyond improved health and fitness, physical activity enhances concentration and attention; it improves attendance and academic performance. Focused, engaged students lead to thriving schools and bright futures.

As our children head back to school this fall, now is the time to advance quality physical activity each day, alongside reading, writing and math. Many dedicated advocates are gravitating to this important issue. Foremost among them is First Lady Michelle Obama. In February of 2013, the First Lady re-ignited her signature Let's Move! campaign with a new initiative: Let's Move! Active Schools. The program calls on champions -- teachers, parents and administrators -- to spearhead efforts to boost movement in their schools, not only to help kids be healthier but also to help them succeed.

Let's Move! Active Schools rallies schools to action and is a growing national movement. The initiative I lead, the Active Schools Acceleration Project (ASAP) is a collaborating partner in this movement, identifying innovative and scalable models that are already successful in our schools. My team has visited schools across the country that are reaping tremendous benefits for millions of students by making quality physical activity a routine part of the school day.

At Overland Elementary in Los Angeles, Calif., the entire student body starts every day with 15 minutes of quality group exercise, led by an inspired parent. At Red Hawk Elementary in Erie, Colo., teachers inject 20-minute activity breaks twice-a-day before the most rigorous academic work, refreshing the mind and body for the lessons ahead. In Harlem, NY, space-constrained, inner-city schools utilize in-class activity breaks that kids can perform at their desks. Despite taking distinct approaches, all these schools report the same positive outcomes to increased movement: happier, healthier, more focused, engaged students.

Boosting physical activity alone will not solve the childhood obesity epidemic. But it is a critical component of the equation to reverse the trend. Even more important, this movement is proof positive that individual grassroots leaders and champions can create a lasting sustainable shift in our culture around health and active living. I firmly believe that quality physical activity is not just a characteristic of a healthy school, it is a defining element of a truly great school.