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Weight and Health Issues Continue to Plague Military

by Wendy Innes, published

Aerial of the Pentagon by Frontpage via Aerial of the Pentagon by Frontpage via

People have known for decades about the health risks associated with being overweight, which contributes to everything from diabetes to heart disease to joint problems. Being overweight or obese is the second leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America's weight problems continue, with more than one-third of the country being overweight or obese.  If this wasn't bad enough, imagine being able to lose your job because you are overweight. The idea of losing one's job is scary in the current economy, but for many in the military, this is the stark reality. Tweet stat: Tweet

For years, it's been assumed that America's military members are among the fittest people in the country. They'd have to be with all the exercise they get, right? According to a study from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC), that assumption is wrong, and it's wrong from the very beginning.

The study states that in 2006 weight and health issues accounted for 35 percent of men and 28 percent of women being disqualified for service. That's just one year of a twelve year study. The problems don't end there. Many who are not heavy enough to be disqualified, continue to have weight struggles throughout their military careers. Tweet stat: Tweet

In 2012, the Army discharged fifteen times more people for being overweight than it did in 2007, at the height of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The AFHSC study also found that the number of service members diagnosed as overweight or obese tripled, with a sharp increase after 2003, when operations began in Iraq. Tweet stat: Tweet

However, because the military was stretched thin with multiple combat theaters, instead of discharging members who didn't meet weight standards, many were given multiple chances to bring their weight under control. Every branch of service implemented or revamped programs designed to help its members become healthier.

However, as the U.S. Department of Defense continues to grapple with the looming fiscal cliff, more active duty members are being discharged for being overweight, instead of being given multiple chances to "shape up" as they had been in the past. Some members have complained that the regulations are unrealistic while others resort to dangerous methods to keep their jobs.

An article published in the Army Times in 2010 found that some service members are willing to go to extremes to avoid being discharged, including abusing diet pills and laxatives, starvation diets, dehydration, purging, or even liposuction. Many claim that the command leadership is aware of this but turns a blind eye, as long as the member passes the required fitness test and the "tape" test if they are out of height/weight standards. The tape test is required whether that member passed the fitness test or not. Tweet to @ArmyTimes: Tweet

Yet, it's the very means of measuring whether or a not a person meets these standards that many are calling into question. The "tape" test takes physical body measurements and uses them to calculate body fat percentage, a method that is outdated by fitness standards because it doesn’t really give an accurate look at overall fitness.

For instance, many women and African-Americans naturally tend to carry more of their bodyweight in their hips, buttocks and thighs, so when these are measured with a tape measure, they can seem to be unhealthy when they really aren't. Many weight lifters encounter similar problems because they can have a larger mass and weight than someone of a similar height, when they really are not unhealthy at all. The tape test simply doesn't account for the wide range of body shapes that are found in the population.

While exercise is a topic that is widely addressed in the military, with most members being required to exercise 3-5 days per week, a proper understanding of diet and nutrition is lacking among the troops. Many still think that skipping meals will help them lose weight, when research has proved that the opposite is true.

Members often site a lack of time to eat and healthy options when it comes to food choices, and this is an area that the military could be doing more to improve. Visit any military installation and chances are that the readily available food options include the calorically dense, and usually poor quality, foods served in the dining hall, or multiple unhealthy fast food options. In some cases, in order to cut costs, dining facilities have cut meal services such as breakfast or MIDRATS for those who work overnight, and fast food restaurants typically are not open 24 hours on base.

Of course members are always free to "brown bag" their meals, but this can be a problem for those who live in barracks as many aren't equipped with full kitchens, especially for lower ranking personnel, and many personnel lack a grasp of good nutrition. Usually if a member lives in the barracks, they depend on the dining hall for their meals.

This doesn't mean that the military member isn't responsible for their own health and fitness, indeed they are. Perhaps an in-depth look at the standards is warranted, to be sure that the military isn't losing good soldiers in favor of thin soldiers. However, as it stands now, an expanding waistline just might mean a trip to the unemployment line for many before the problems are over.



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