Obesity Crisis: Why the Military is Sounding Off On Young People's Waistlines

The United States military has begun releasing military personnel for being physically unfit. According to the Washington Post, the number of military personnel considered obese or overweight has tripled over the past 12years. WaPo said that in 2010, a report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that 5.3% of the force received at least one clinical diagnosis as overweight or obese. Dismissals have noticeably increased since the government began drawing down its troops in Iraq, and some of have speculated that this is part of a larger effort to reduce the number of active personnel. The Army, for example, is under orders to reduce the “active-duty force from 570,000 to 490,000 by 2017” and one way to do that is to “weed out substandard troops.” 

Beyond cutting troop numbers, the effort to remove physically unfit military personnel has brought into sharp attention the growing problem of obesity in American youth, a problem which may plague the military for years to come.

The growing trend of unfit youth, particularly among minorities, should be of great concern for the military. Minorities, particularly Latinos, are the fastest-growing demographic in America, and it is likely that it is the population that will be called upon to staff our military in the next generation. Young people, particularly minorities, have to get in shape if they expect to join and stay in the military and protect the country. WaPo notes that “obesity is the leading cause of ineligibility for people who want to join the Army,” which the military considers a “national security concern.”

The military is one of the oldest and most honorable professions in mankind. It is even more honorable when a man or woman volunteers to serve their country by joining the military. What can be nobler than to volunteer to defend and die for your country? 

The military offers many advantages. As an organization, it is large and complex, but the one common denominator is they need you to be a physically fit soldier. Regardless of your skill set, you are always first and foremost a soldier. Have you ever wondered why in most movies or television shows regardless of the specialty skill the soldiers are always fit and able? It is because it is a requirement, and the military wants its personnel fit and able to fight. It is because of this basic requirement that the military has begun to crack down on “unsat” soldiers. No more jelly belly fatties allowed in service.

Physical fitness has always been a requirement for service personnel. However, as the need for bodies grew due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military relaxed its standards and accepted and retained service personnel who could not meet the basic physical fitness requirement. Navy SEAL and fitness expert Stew Smith told the Washington Post “during a war period, when we were ramping up, the physical standards didn’t have a lot of teeth because we needed bodies to go overseas, to fill platoons and brigades.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who was in charge of upgrading the Army’s training program, said “75% of civilians who wanted to join the force were ineligible” because of obesity. He went on to say that “of the 25% that could join, what we found was 65% could not pass the [physical training] test on the first day. Young people joining our service could not run, jump, tumble or roll — the kind of things you would expect soldiers to do if you’re in combat.”

This reflects the general poor health of young people throughout America. Regardless of the advancements in sports technology and the ever-expanding physical fitness market, the young appear to be in pretty poor shape relative to other periods in history. While medical science and advancements in agricultural science have us living longer, they can’t make us run, jump or tumble.

We spend most of our time on the web, playing videos and texting. Citing a Kaiser Family Foundation Study, the Centers for Disease Control said that “children 8—18 years of age spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones, and movies.” We are spending less and less time doing anything remotely physical and working up a sweat means “actually sweating.” We will probably spend more time discussing which gym to join, what exercise program or guru to follow and discuss and what apparel to wear than we actually spend working out.

The Centers for Disease Control found that “more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese.” Furthermore they found that obesity is extremely high among non-Hispanic Blacks (49.5%), Mexican Americans (40.4%), and all Hispanics (39.1%). Among non-Hispanic whites they found the obesity rate to be 34.3%. The CDC said one-third of the country over the age of 20 is overweight.

And, unsurprisingly, the military reflects these trends. The Washington Post reports that this year the U.S. Army has increased the number of soldiers discharged for being out of shape by 16 times over the number released in 2007. The number of discharges in the U.S. Navy has grown by 40%.

The military makes it relatively easy to pass the physical requirements. For example, in the US Navy, you have to fail the Physical Fitness Assessment twice in the last seven tries and fail to pass any portion of the assessment on the third test before being automatically expelled from the service. The military also provides help for soldiers struggling with the fitness requirements. The Army “Weigh to Stay” program provides weight training and nutritional guidance for soldiers who have been flagged for being out of shape. The mandatory weight management program can be completed in person or online.

But given problems with obesity amongst young people, replacement personnel may be difficult to come by. The 38th annual Population Representation in the Military Services Fiscal Year 2010 found that “although the overall youth population is large, only a relatively small proportion of American youth is qualified to enlist. Over one-third of youth (35%) have a medical disqualification, with obesity a large contributing factor.” According to the report, 45% of all applicants are 18-19, the number of minorities enlisting is growing faster than its population, and the Census Bureau found that this year was the first in which the majority of births occurred in the minority community.

Young people, particularly those interested in a military career, have to put down the game pads and smartphones. They have to stop playing Farmville and eat better and they have to stop playing Madden Football and go outside and play some football.