Of all the things I have learned in my life, two which have had the most fundamental impact upon me are reading and running.

My grandmother taught me to read when I was 4, and the Army taught me to run 20 years later. One developed my mind, the other preserved my body.

And with increased attention – from City Hall to the White House – about the perilous prospects of inner-city children – most of whom are black – I would suggest focusing on these two simple things.

Reading and running.

In much of urban America, there is broad-based academic and intellectual failure. Stunningly low graduation rates, high unemployment rates, wide-ranging inability to engage an increasingly technical and complex world. There are also the highest obesity rates in our society, with all the horrific health dangers and expenses associated with being morbidly overweight. High weight, low exercise followed by poor health and short life.

These plagues are real, they are also unnecessary, and fixable by simple lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle changes that have low or negligible costs. It doesn’t take money, it only takes effort.

First, reading.

As the father of elementary-school children, I see a demarcation among their peers. There are those children who were read to at home and those children who weren’t. Both groups are of approximately equal intelligence, but very different educational success. From the earliest grades on, those children who were read to – who were taught by example that reading is a good thing – fare well in school. The others fail. You see, heartbreakingly, that by the second- and third-grade they have already become so distanced from the lowest levels of achievement that hopes of ever catching up are vain.

Because nobody read to them, because their home culture does not teach them that reading is valuable.

As a consequence, their education and employment prospects are crippled, and their lifelong economic status is determined.

Because nobody read to them, because their home culture does not teach them that reading is valuable.

Sadly, encouraging parents to read to their children doesn’t do much good. Parents who don’t read to their children either can’t or don’t care. No amount of haranguing or begging is going to change that. Many urban parents are functionally illiterate themselves – because of their own upbringing – and some are so detached and apathetic about actual parenting that they simply can’t be bothered.

Second, running.

The most plentiful recreational space in America is the sidewalk. The most beneficial lifelong sport is running.

Many urban children have staggering rates of childhood obesity. That is a consequence of genetics and lifestyle, particularly eating habits. Chips and Mountain Dew are not food, yet many children are served them for breakfast. Thankfully, many efforts are in place to offer children nutritious food.

Not many, however, promote actual fitness.

In the era of the TV, the electronics and the video game, many children are sedentary, and that becomes their home and personal culture.

Sadly, it can be a death sentence that spreads health difficulties before them for the rest of their lives.

Running is an exercise that doesn’t require special play areas or equipment, and everyone knows how to do it. Engaged in regularly, in childhood or adulthood, it controls weight and builds up the heart and lungs. The simple habit of going running three or four or five times a week can be the difference between a long, robust life and the slow death of diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

From a public and personal health standpoint, it is impossible to overstate the benefit of regular exercise like running.

So, those are two solutions.

Reading and running.

One will help you succeed in school, expand your mind and equip you to make a better living. The other will give you longer life and better health.

They both will save society untold treasure and dysfunction.

And neither will be encouraged at home for many children. And that will curse those children.

So what do we do?

We recognize and energize the role of societal encouragement.

My suggestion would be a Mayor’s Cup, a recognition system that encourages both reading and running.

For reading, solicit volunteers to come to city libraries, recreation centers, fire houses, police stations and settlement houses to read for an hour. Every day, maybe in two shifts, morning and afternoon. An open door to neighborhood children. From babes in arms to kids who straggle in on their own. Just come in and sit down, and some volunteer from the neighborhood or across the county will read to you.

And maybe another volunteer can help those children who are reading on their own.

And a tally would be kept of each half an hour that a child spent reading or being read to, and at certain levels there would be awards, from little medals to t-shirts. Al emblazoned with a logo or endorsement from the city or mayor that sets that child apart in an honorable way.

For running, a stretch of street could be blocked off on a recurring basis and races of varying lengths held, for youngsters of various ages. Maybe once or twice a year, in one or more neighborhoods, there could be bigger races held, championships of sorts, with the mayor in attendance herself to honor the winners and congratulate the participants.

Perhaps races could also be held for parents and adults, or combined races for parents and children.

Don’t put these off on fancy tracks, have them be right down the streets where these kids live.

And make the medals and t-shirts handed out become badges of pride. Incentivize fitness and participation by offering pride of accomplishment to those who take part.

Don’t let it turn into somebody’s job or kingdom.

Get volunteers for the reading program, and to organize the races. Ask the police to volunteer their time to watch traffic at the races, and solicit donations from the larger community to help pay for shirts and medals.

But instill pride.

And make an effort to get children hooked on reading and running. Show them the doors these activities can open for them, the enjoyments they can bring to them.

Young kids are wasting their minds and their bodies. This is my suggestion for how to change that.