Saluting Our Troops Through Good Health: With One Third Too Obese to Serve, Physical Activity Must Be Central to Early Education

05/28/2010 11:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's hard to believe that --nearly 100 years ago-- as America was readying for the onset of World War I, a third of all draftees were deemed unfit to serve. They were too thin. Congress responded by increasing the national standard for physical activity in schools, and thus, PE classes were formed. Not surprisingly, America got healthier, our youth became stronger, and our country became more prepared.

Yet today, as we face new demands on our armed forces, nearly a third of recruits are once again unfit to serve. Now, they are overweight. As of 2005, at least nine million young adults -- 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 -- were too overweight to serve in the military. And since then, these numbers have remained largely unchanged.

This is an unprecedented, unacceptable state of affairs. Just as Congress took initiative to get recruits in shape in during the First World War, there are several steps today's leaders can take to get America moving in the right direction. Some change has already been set in motion. This Spring, the House passed the FIT Kids Act, which would engage parents and the public by requiring all schools, districts and states to report on students' physical activity, including the amount of time spent in physical education. That bill now awaits action in the Senate. But much more remains to be done, and in fact, many of the changes our youth need are realized in sweeping bipartisan legislation introduced earlier this month by Rep. Ron Kind.

The Healthy CHOICES Act would make getting fit part of everyday life from the moment our kids step through the classroom doorway, as well as far beyond the halls of their schools. This bill would establish physical education as a core curriculum subject for grades K-12, provide regularly-updated national standards for PE curricula and expand funding for Physical Education Program (PEP) Grants. Moreover, it promotes physical activity for our youngest children in Head Start programs, finally aligning physical activity and playtime with standards established by the Institutes of Medicine.

The bill also helps our younger generation get and stay active outside the classroom - something that's particularly urgent for low income kids who have little in the way of organized after-school sports or even a safe playground to enjoy in their neighborhood. To tackle this challenge, the Healthy CHOICES Act creates grants for community-based programs that expand the availability of safe, supervised after-school physical activity programs, as well as grants for states to create strategies that get people moving in the great outdoors.

Of course, there is no one solution to reversing the nation's obesity epidemic, and moving the needle for our children will continue to take a comprehensive approach. However, increasing our standards for physical fitness from an early age is a fundamental step.

This Memorial Day, among the many ways we can salute our troops, Congress should commit to ensuring that the next generation of would-be soldiers are fit to serve. Enacting legislation that takes simple, needed steps to help kids get and stay active is in the nation's most pressing national security interests. To ensure the safety of our nation and the health and wellness of the generations that follow us, it is the very least we can do.