In light of the election, many Americans have likely spent considerable time over the last few months contemplating the future state of our country. Regardless of whom you voted for, however, our future does not lie in the hands of one woman or one man, but rather in an entire generation of young people who will grow up to become CEOs, moms and dads, first-grade teachers, presidents of the United States—and everything in between.

But are we doing everything possible to set them up for future success?

The truth is, we are failing our children on two foundational fronts: health and education.

This is the first generation of kids in recorded history who are projected to live shorter, less healthy lives than that of their parents because of increasing obesity rates, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity. About 33 percent of children in this country are overweight or obese, and cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death among adults. Obesity has a major impact on children’s quality of life, burdening them with physical, psychological and even educational challenges. And unfortunately, obese children are destined to become obese adults who will face major long-term health and economic consequences, impacting our society as a whole.

These are current realities that must be reversed. Our kids deserve better—and we all must help.

So let’s talk solutions. Although it is naïve to suggest that there is a “magic potion” that will fix these issues, one low-cost, high-impact strategy has been identified that improves both educational success and good health: physical activity.

Very simply put—active kids learn better. Children who get the recommended amount of physical activity are consistently shown to achieve higher test scores, have better focus and better behavior in the classroom, and less absenteeism overall than their less fit counterparts. Furthermore, regular physical activity is associated with a healthier, longer life and with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and some cancers.

But let’s take that one step further. It’s becoming increasingly clear that not only is it imperative for kids to be active each and every day, but equally critical is the teaching of the necessary life skills for healthy and active living which will help them to grow into happy, healthy, productive, and thriving adults.

Physical education teaches kids these skills, and supports the child as a whole—benefiting their physical, mental and emotional health. PE has been shown to help students perform better academically, driving improvements in cognitive skills, behaviors, and test scores. Physical education classes are structured to teach kids to be physically literate—what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, and how to go about doing so.

We all know how difficult it is to change a habit. It is essential to teach kids healthy habits early in life since the best way to treat cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) is to prevent it in the first place. Indeed, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Right now, Wisconsin has a unique opportunity to voice our strong commitment to our kids’ health and educational attainment by underscoring the importance of physical education.

As a result of a federal law change, leaders in our state are discussing what information should be included on school report cards, which include a school-wide overview of metrics such as student population, graduation rates and academic performance. This report card for schools was designed to include indicators that are important to the well-being of the child as a whole, which should include how much physical education our children are receiving.

As we prepare for the next generation to take on our nation’s toughest challenges, let’s ensure they are getting the best education possible by promoting health through quality and frequent physical education. Reporting PE minutes on a school’s report card is a simple step that our state’s education leaders can take that will have a lasting impact on our kids for generations to come.

To learn more about school report cards, or to see how your child’s school is rated, please visit http://dpi.wi.gov/accountability/report-cards.

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Dr. Jane K. Pearson is program director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation for SSM Health, Dean Medical Group of Madison, and a member of the board of directors of the American Heart Association, Madison.

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