The men and women serving in the U.S. military are getting fatter at an alarming rate. Could this trend be a simple reflection of the fact that pilots sitting in a command center far away from the battlefield flying drones in today's modern military just don't require the same level of physical fitness? Or, perhaps our military leaders, like our college professors, have shied away from committing "micro-aggressions" against our soft-skinned millennial soldiers by asking them to do things like exercise.
While it may not be exactly clear why it's happening, according to data published by the Military Times, the fact is that America's military is packing on the pounds.
As the Military Times points out, compared to the U.S. civilian population, the rate of overweight troops is far smaller. While that may be true, there's a reason we don't ensure our national security to overweight, pampered, unemployed millennials living at home with mom...they probably wouldn't be very good at it. But just to confirm the stats, the map below from The State of Obesity, highlights that over 30% of the civilian population in many states is technically obese.
As Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell points out, while rising obesity rates in the U.S. military don't yet raise a "readiness concern" the "obesity trends are troubling."
“If I have to climb up to the top of a mountain in Nuristan, in Afghanistan, and if I have someone who is classified as clinically obese, they are potentially going to be a liability for me on that patrol,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the military’s top noncommissioned officer and the senior enlisted adviser to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Troxell said today’s force is combat ready, but he believes the obesity trends are troubling, and demand careful consideration from senior leaders. “I don’t think it’s a clear readiness concern right now. But I think it’s something that needs our attention. And we really have to look across our services at what we’re doing every morning or every day to prepare the men and women for what could be the worst day of their life,” Troxell said in a recent interview.
As for the reasons for the growing obesity rates, the Military Times points out a number of potential contributing factors including a lack of healthy food on base and a younger generation of soldiers that grew up playing video games on the couch rather than engaging in physical activities outdoors.
“This is about the national security of the United States,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. John Bednarek, who was the highest ranking American general in Iraq in 2014. “It’s a long term trend and we cannot turn a blind eye. The bottom line is that our commanders and senior enlisted leaders have to take a look at what we are serving, whether it’s in the [dining facility] or aboard a ship in the mess. Are we providing healthy choices? Are we providing fruits and vegetable options up front? As opposed to the first thing they see in the morning is the grill with a 22-grams-of-fat sausage patty?”
Troxell said that he believes the urgent demands created by combat may have led some unit-level leaders to prioritize missions over traditional physical training. “In some cases," he added, "the first thing that gets cut is the fitness session that was on the training calendar, when actually that is probably the most important thing we do every day.”
Add to that wartime eating habits. “At the dining facilities that we had in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was really four or five times a day. It was unlimited chow of all kinds that service members could indulge in. And all of the sudden it led to some overeating and pretty soon we had people whose body mass was going up to what doctors would say is clinically obese,” Troxell said.
Troxell also said that some of the military's current fitness challenges reflect the new generation of young people joining the services.
“The men and women that are coming in today weren’t doing the things as they were growing up that I was doing when I was growing up, such as playing outside until dark, racing with my friends from one crack in the cement to another crack in the cement. More and more, young men and women are attracted to things that happen indoors and allow them be on a couch, like playing video games,” Troxell said. “Men and women are growing up differently. There is less physical activities and more mental activities.”
But, like with the Reuters presidential poll, the easiest way to fix an undesirable result is simply to "tweak" the way the data is collected, measured and analyzed, which the U.S. military intends to do promptly.
Top military health plan to publish a new policy later this year that could have a sweeping effect on how the military defines and measures health and fitness.