This week, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that will provide $700,000 for Colorado’s Safe Routes to School program.
This is great news for our children’s health and also important for our future national security.
According to Curtis Gilroy when he was director of Accession Policy for the Department of Defense, 75 percent of all 17- to 24-year-olds in America are not eligible to join the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight or have a criminal record.
Being overweight is the leading medical reason, with more than 1 in 5 young adults too heavy to enlist. Closer to home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 adolescents in Colorado is overweight or obese.
Obesity is not just a problem for potential recruits. Every year, the military discharges more than 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts are up due to weight problems. The military must then recruit and train their replacements at a cost of $50,000 per person, totaling roughly $60 million annually.
Beyond its effect on recruitment and retention, obesity also imposes a significant financial burden on the military. In addition to the cost of replacing those who have been discharged because of weight, the Defense Department spends an estimated $1.1 billion per year on obesity-related medical expenses for active-duty personnel, reservists, retirees and their dependents through TRICARE, the military’s health care program. We also know from military research that less-fit recruits are more prone to musculoskeletal injuries such as leg and ankle injuries.
As a result of increasingly sedentary lifestyles and declining opportunities to engage in physical activity, recruits are showing up without the strong bodies that are needed to engage in the rigors of military service.
To help keep kids fit, experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that children engage in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 children in Colorado is not getting enough physical activity, according to the latest Colorado Health Report Card from The Colorado Health Foundation.
Walking or biking to school is an important source of physical activity for children, but in the past four decades the percentage of kids nationwide who walk or bike to school has dropped from 48 percent to just 13 percent.
That is why the increased funding for Colorado’s Safe Routes to School Program is so important. The more than 450 retired generals and admirals of the nonprofit Mission: Readiness, of which I am a member, applaud Gov. Hickenlooper, Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs,, and Sen. Andy Kerr for their leadership to ensure that more Colorado kids safely can walk and bike to school.
The young people we will seek to recruit in 2027 into colleges, the private sector and the military will enter first grade this fall. If we are to succeed in preparing today’s young people to do the work of the nation, including military service for those who choose to serve, we need to provide healthier school and community environments for children.
Victor E. Renuart Jr. is a U.S. Air Force retired general from Colorado Springs.