Are We Doing It All Wrong?: Is Increasing Classroom Minutes Hurting Academic Achievement?

First Lady Michelle Obama (C) is surrounded by school children as she launches a challenge on the White House South Lawn to h
First Lady Michelle Obama (C) is surrounded by school children as she launches a challenge on the White House South Lawn to help break the Guiness World Records title for the most people doing jumping jacks in a 24-hour period during a 'Let's Move!' event in Washington, DC, October 11, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past decade, practically every segment of our society has considered the issues of child health and childhood obesity. It's First Lady Michelle Obama's signature cause. Our military leaders label it a crisis of national security.

At one time, Americans raised an eyebrow when the term "epidemic" was used to describe childhood obesity. Now it's hard to imagine using any other word.

Over that same period, students' academic performance has worsened. Students from the United States place far behind other nations in math and science. Even the name of our education legislation -- No Child Left Behind -- acknowledges that we fear doing just that and, consequently, we must act for the sake of our nation's children.

We've elevated our focus on quantifiable testing and on filling the school day with as much academic focus as possible -- even when that means trimming minutes from the lunch period, recess and Physical Education (P.E.).

What if this response actually is worsening the situation and diminishes not only kids' physical health but their academic achievement? Many kids are arriving at school hungry, and some then go through the day with limited access to healthy food. Combined with a reduction in P.E. time, is this fostering an adverse environment for academic achievement?

The more we learn, the more that appears to be the case.

Just examine the existing body of research in our report, "The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments," released by the GENYOUth Foundation, National Dairy Council, American College of Sports Medicine, and American School Health Association. Physical activity during the school day continues to decrease, to the point where 75 percent of high school students aren't active for the recommended hour a day. Yet we know that children register improved cognitive function after just 20 minutes of physical activity -- meaning that reducing P.E. and recess in favor of increased classroom time has the opposite effect intended. Physical activity helps turn on the areas of the brain needed to learn.

And physical activity is just half the story. Any adult who's spent interminable minutes in a dull pre-lunch meeting can attest that it's difficult to focus when you're hungry. Yet 62 percent of teens come to school without breakfast. This may be due partly to the fact that a shocking 1 in 4 children live in a food-insecure household -- which means, they don't always know where they'll find their next meal. With larger schools staggering lunch times, some students are now going five or six hours without eating anything at all. Couple that with the possibility of a nutrient-poor lunch, and we're asking students to achieve while running on fumes.

And thinking beyond the school day, we're missing a chance to help every child develop lifelong habits of balanced nutrition and physical activity.

American kids spend 2,000 hours a year in school. That's just 80 hours shy of what we adults put in if we work 40 hours a week, every week of the year. And we're regularly warned of the potential health risks of sitting all day. Yet children sit at desks for hours on end and we expect them to thrive? Just how productive would you be if you started the day without breakfast and slowly rotated from one (possibly uncomfortable) desk to another? No coffee breaks. No walking to lunch. No snacks at your desk.

The ramifications of this situation stretch far beyond our injured pride when America's student-performance rankings fall behind those of other countries. We face the threat of an unprepared future workforce, of falling victim to preventable diseases at an earlier age and of hurting our economic productivity while our societal health care costs soar. As we look at our current generation, there is a risk that they will not reach their full potential, and a serious likelihood that they'll have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

There is good news: The most important part of the solution -- changing the way we think about the school environment -- is free. As a country, we must start this process today. We must commit to the fact that physical and academic well-being of children are inextricably linked. We must think about nutrient-rich foods and physical activity time at school the way we think about books, or computers or any other critical educational tools.

Certain schools are doing that and leading the way. Others are joining public-private partnerships to obtain grants and educational materials. Yet, that's insufficient. We need parents, business leaders and health professionals in every community to make their voices heard when advocating for healthier school environments -- just as they would if math and reading were in danger of being cut.

If we can make this shift -- if we can make school wellness an educational way of life -- we have the potential to help create a lasting "culture of wellness" in every school building, and in every classroom in America. I, for one, believe it can happen, and that schools can be the great equalizer and provide the healthy learning environments they were meant to be. This is nothing short of the most pressing public health challenge of our time -- our future truly is at stake. ¨

--Dr. Satcher served as the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, from 1998-2002, and was the director of the Centers for Disease Control from 1993-1998. He is currently director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine and member of the Board of Directors for the GenYOUth Foundation.