Our military is fat, out of shape and our leaders seem to think it’s okay. This trend is following society’s trend with almost 1 in 3 adults being too fat to serve. As our ranks gain weight, their physical fitness standards are beginning to lower. Recently the US Navy changed the overweight limit for sailors after almost 1/3 of all Navy personnel couldn’t maintain the regulations. While this may help retain personnel, it is setting a precedent that it’s ok to be overweight.
While it’s easy to blame the service members themselves for being overweight the responsibility ultimately falls on the leadership. The issues begin with physical fitness and the food being served to service members. In many military dining facilities (DFACs) the food is deep-fried, carbohydrate-heavy and generally unhealthy to help keep down overall food costs. In the end, feeding a military is expensive and even more so when you stray away from filling, cheap foods such as spaghetti, bread, and rice. However, the military ultimately pays a higher price with medical bills and VA claims derived from soldiers being obese or unhealthy due to a poor diet. If the military wants to fix the obesity problem it should begin in the dining facilities. If the only options available to the soldiers are poor tasting healthy food or semi-delicious unhealthy food, the soldiers will go for the latter.
The military also needs to look at how they label foods. In the current DFACs, food is labeled as high performance, medium performance, and low performance. The military suggests eating high/medium performance foods often and little performance foods only occasionally. The issue here is things like spaghetti, rice, bread, and carbohydrate-rich foods are listed as high performance while protein-rich foods such as steak are listed as low performance. This causes soldiers to think that eating foods that are high in carbohydrates on a regular basis will allow them to maintain a healthy diet. In addition, the PX/BX offers ample amounts of sugary energy drinks, chips, and candy with a small selection of healthy snacks. This is even more prevalent when on deployment. AFN airs commercials about health issues associated with energy drinks and then the PX offers a whole wall of them with no healthy alternatives.
While foods are a large contributor to the overall weight issue, physical fitness also lacks. In theory, if anyone were to workout daily, as is required in the military, then they should at least maintain a decent body fat ratio and physical fitness standard. However, our military is entering an era where we don’t want to make our service members work hard in fear of being cruel or unfair. Physical fitness sessions now stray from the past where soldiers were thrashed on a daily basis and ate strict diets designed to maintain weight loss. Instead, physical fitness often consists of team sports, walking or other low-intensity workouts that can’t compensate for the poor diets consumed. If you want to lose weight and be in shape, workout hard… It’s literally that easy.
Again, the blame here falls on the leaders. Yes, you, fat NCO/officer reading this blog, you are the one to blame. If you are fat then you don’t have any leg to stand on when your subordinates become out of shape as well. The reality is being fit breeds excellence, it breeds pride and it produces warriors. As much as I hate the Crossfit cult it does prove that fitness breeds a certain mentality. Very seldom do people look at the hardcore Crossfit athletes and comment on how big of pussies they are. Even among the compression socks, annoying discussions of WODs and constant FB posts about their PRs they still have self-pride and the physical capabilities that should be required for military service. If this physical fitness standard were to permeate through the military we might be able to regain some self-worth and begin to breed warriors again.
So what can we do to fix this issue?
Well, for one the US military needs to change the food available to military personnel drastically. There is no reason any service member should return from a deployment fat and out of shape. This is the perfect place to start since the military can control the diet of troops and there is typically more than enough time for daily PT. Even CONUS DFACs should change the food provided to the service members to help encourage healthy eating. Also, more education should be given to the troops regarding PT, diet and how to maintain a healthy physical fitness level.
Next, the military needs to change the physical fitness standards and stick to them. Let’s face it, pushups, sit-ups and a short run are not an accurate measure of physical fitness, especially when it comes to combat. Service members need to be tested on and held to a standard on combat-related exercises such as sprinting, rucking, pull-ups (necessary for urban movement), leg and back strength (used to carry wounded) and other movements that include a soldier’s kit. If a service member is unable to pass the standards they should be given time to correct their issues and then let go if they fail to meet the norm.
Finally, leaders need to stop being lazy when it comes to PT. Nothing is more demoralizing than seeing your new PL or NCOIC show up and be out of shape, fat and frumpy. In reality, leaders should be held to the standard even more strictly than the lower enlisted since they are the ones who are supposed to lead by example. In the end, many of the physical fitness standards remain because fat officers and NCOs wouldn’t be able to stay in the military if they changed.