Guest column

Getting youths active boosts national security

By Elder Granger
Posted 9/30/15

In early October, schools across Colorado and nationwide are holding events for Walk and Bike to School Day. As a retired general and a medical doctor, I can tell you that increasing physical activity is vitally important for our children’s health …

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Guest column

Getting youths active boosts national security

Posted

In early October, schools across Colorado and nationwide are holding events for Walk and Bike to School Day. As a retired general and a medical doctor, I can tell you that increasing physical activity is vitally important for our children’s health and our future national security.

Obesity is the leading medical reason why 70 percent of young people in Colorado are ineligible for military service. In addition to affecting recruiting, obesity has risen 61 percent among active duty service members since 2002 and the Department of Defense spends more than $1.5 billion every year on obesity-related health care and costs to replace unfit personnel.

During my military career, I was a combat medic and deputy director of the military’s health care system. I saw firsthand the musculoskeletal injuries that prevent a truly alarming number of active duty personnel from being deployed. More than 60 percent of non-deployed active duty service members experience a sprain, stress fracture, or other related injury each year due in part to poor nutrition and exercise habits. The military is spending billions treating these injuries among active duty personnel and veterans.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we know what Colorado’s policymakers and communities can do to help solve these problems. A recent report from the national security organization Mission: Readiness, of which I am a member, outlined a three-part plan to put young Coloradans on a healthy track for life.

Step one is to build communities that foster physical activities, like biking and walking. Research shows that simply walking or biking to and from school can add an average of 16 minutes of physical activity to a child’s day, just over one-quarter of the daily amountrecommended by experts. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of adolescents in Colorado walk or bike to school.

Fortunately, we have a great success story here in Colorado that deserves continued support. Within the past decade, Safe Routes to School and walking school bus programs in Colorado have helped hundreds of schools increase the number of children who walk and bike to and from school by improving sidewalks, bicycle paths, intersections, traffic signals and other infrastructure, as well as by enlisting parents to participate.

State leaders must prioritize funding for safer and better biking and walking infrastructure so that more children can have an “active commute” to school and more opportunities for physical activity in their communities.

Step two is to build physical activity into the school day. Physical education — PE — is an important source of physical activity for children. Yet PE is now absent from many schools and limited in others. Fifty-six percent of adolescents in Colorado report receiving no PE in an average week, which helps to explain why only half of highschool students in the state get the recommended hour of daily physical activity.

We must support efforts to increase access to and strengthen the quality of school physical education programs.

In addition to increasing opportunities for physical activity, healthy eating habits will also help to prevent obesity and provide nutrients that enhance physical activity and healthier bone and muscle growth.

That is why step three is to stay the course on healthier school meals. As a result of updated national nutrition standards for school meals that went into effect in 2012, 100 percent of schools in Colorado are now serving healthier meals that have more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. This is great news for parents who want their kids to eat healthy meals at school and great news for everyone who’s concerned about the obesity epidemic because many kids get up to half of their daily calories at school.

As Congress considers the future of the National School Lunch Program, I urge Colorado’s congressional delegation to support the updated school nutrition standards and refrain from any attempt to weaken or roll back the current guidelines.

Healthy eating and exercise habits in childhood lead to healthy habits in adulthood. That is why it is so important to provide children with healthy school meals and more opportunities for physical activity in school and in the community. This will ensure that those who want to join the military are fit enough to do so.

Elder Granger, a Centennial resident, is a medical doctor and a retired major general in the Army.

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