Weight Woes Grow in the US Military

overweight soldiers

Despite decades of education and warnings about exercise and nutrition, America continues to get heavier.

So it's no surprise that the same is true in America's military. In some specific cases, the problem is a bit worse.

The difference is that being overweight is grounds for losing your job in the nation's armed forces. Being heavy is now one of the leading reasons for being forced out of the military, according to a story in The Washington Post that included findings from a study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

And it's getting worse as the Defense Department looks for ways to cut personnel to reflect the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of looming budget cuts.

"During the first 10 months of this year, the Army kicked out 1,625 soldiers for being out of shape, about 15 times the number discharged for that reason in 2007, the peak of wartime deployment cycles," The Post reported.

Trouble with weight starts at the beginning of service. According to the study, a higher percentage of young recruits are overweight than in the civilian population. And, like the overall population of America, problems with weight in the military grow with age and length of service.

According to the study, between 1998 and 2010, the number of active-duty servicemembers diagnosed as overweight or obese rose threefold. There was a particularly rapid increase after 2003.

The subgroups with the highest proportion of overweight personnel include people over 40 (8.3 percent), women (8.2 percent), health care workers (8 percent) and Air Force members (7.2 percent). The lowest prevalence of weight problems came among Marines (1.7 percent) and soldiers younger than 20 (2 percent).

The Army's obesity rate in 2010 was 6.5 percent; the Navy's was 3.9 percent; and the Coast Guard's was 5.6 percent. Before branch flare begin, the study suggests demographics - there are more women in the Air Force, and fewer older Marines - rather than inherent differences are to blame for the divergent obesity rates.

The study's unnamed authors dismiss the long-held assumption that servicemembers - with all that physical exercise, with constant monitoring, with regular fitness testing - must be immune to the nation's obesity epidemic.

As in the civilian population, being heavy carries health risks. The report quoted an earlier study showing that heavier servicemembers were more likely to lose duty time because of weight- related injuries.

The reasons for all this are the same as for nonmilitary Americans: Too little exercise, too much bad food, too much passive entertainment. They argue that "nutritional fitness" be made a priority throughout the military, and especially among line leaders and health professionals. Perhaps if the Pentagon finds a solution, it could let the rest of us know.

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