12/09/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Connecting the Dots of Child Health and Academic Achievement

I have been fortunate enough in my career to experience many of the most wonderfully complex systems that drive our economy and society forward. In finance, I ran the floor operations for Morgan Stanley; in media at NBC and FOX, I talked daily with politicians, executives and consumers to find out what made business work (and what didn't).

But after all that, I was still taken by surprise by the complexity of the issues in education and healthcare that impact our children on a daily basis. In my role as CEO of the GENYOUth Foundation -- a nonprofit that aims to nurture the development of healthy, high-achieving students through improved nutrition and access to physical activity -- I've learned that if we're not able to solve the child wellness crisis we're currently facing, every other facet of our society will be impacted in the coming decades.

It's not news to anyone that our young people are struggling with obesity. What's more, we continue to fall behind in STEM education and workplace readiness. A new study from OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems, shows the U.S. is 17th in reading, 21st in science and 26th in math, based on a sample of 15-year-old students. The trends point toward a generation that will graduate high school physically and mentally unprepared to take on the world. It's tempting to look at schools and fault teachers and administrators for the struggles of our nation's youth, but faced with increasing academic performance demands, who could blame them for reducing P.E. time and shortening lunch periods? For many districts, the choice has been between learning time and health time, with the former understandably being given preference. But what if that's a false choice? What if there's a way to weave health and learning together, throughout the course of the school day? I ask because it's not just a convenient solution for school districts feeling the twin squeezes of time and budget -- it's something that science shows us is critical.

GENYOUth's Wellness Impact Report, published in March of this year, evaluated the science behind the "learning connection." Just 20 minutes of physical activity and a child's brain quite literally lights up! Conversely, hungry and sluggish students struggle to focus in the classroom. Because of this connection, there's a growing groundswell of education and health experts and corporations pushing back on our traditional notion of the school day, and programs like GENYOUth's own Fuel Up to Play 60 helping schools revamp their day-to-day routine to include healthier habits which lead to academic success and readiness to learn. We hear firsthand from students how much better they feel and perform when they eat a nutritious breakfast and find time to exercise their bodies as well as their minds.

We need everyone's help to give schools the tools to reorient themselves around this important information. And it's obvious that any investment now will have multifold benefits later. What if we followed the example laid out through Cisco's 21st Century Schools Initiative, which didn't just help rebuild schools in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi, it remade them, helping districts revamp their long-term priorities and improve student performance by introducing technology to classrooms. Fortunately, infusing wellness programs into the course of the school day doesn't involve an overhaul of infrastructure, just one of our mindset.

It's in all of our best interests to start thinking of what kind of achievers our current system is turning out. If I were working at a prominent American company, I'd start the HR process in K-12 -- instead of hand-wringing about the skill set of job applicants, why not address those deficiencies at the earliest possible time by making sure schools are healthy environments where hunger or fitness are no longer barriers to learning and achievement? What if the conversation and strategy around the health of the whole child became a priority for corporations planning for the influx of the largest generation -- millennials -- into the workforce?

GENYOUth was founded through a historic public-private partnership between the National Dairy Council and the National Football League. Today, we're renewing our memorandum of understanding and making a recommitment to our nation's schools and youth. But if we're to succeed, this must be just a first step. Our challenge now is perhaps our greatest -- we must connect the dots of child health and academic achievement, and show America's corporate leaders the importance of helping shift the way we view our school day, and the risks we face if we fail to act.