Americans aren’t alone in getting heavier and wider, but there are now concerns that as we eat too much and work out too little that national security could be at risk. Last summer U.S. lawmakers warned as much – but instead of calling for the military to ensure that all recruits met certain fitness criteria, wanted the U.S. Army to develop stronger fitness standards for those soldiers who are most likely to see combat.
There have been calls for the armed services to consider separate fitness standards for those in “non-combat” jobs such as cyber specialists. The Army had also approved reduced physical fitness standards for women and older soldiers. The decision follows a RAND-led study that found men were more easily passing the new, more difficult Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) compared to women and older soldiers, who were “failing at noticeably higher rates.”
The Army isn’t alone in facing this challenge.
Earlier this year, the Department of the Air Force also established a new Body Composition Program standard for Airmen and Guardians after the abdominal circumference was removed from the Air Force-specific Physical Fitness Assessment in 2020.
“The Air Force has relaxed its body fat issue, and the jokes about it being the ‘Chair Force’ could get worse, while we could see the ‘Space Chair Force‘ as well,” warned Dr. Rob Sanders, a retired U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) Captain, and associate professor in the National Security Department at the University of New Haven.
Starting When They’re Young
Sanders told ClearanceJobs that the fitness issue should be seen as a national security challenge, with blame to be spread around a variety of factors, including a decline in youth sports.
“The problem is in the system,” Sanders told ClearanceJobs. “The military is seeing that upwards of 34% of new recruits have some risk of muscle/skeletal injuries. This is especially true in the eight southern states where the bulk of the recruits are from. This is a readiness issue – as the military won’t be ready if so many of its personnel are off the shelf.”
The military has increasingly used video games as recruiting tools, but those same games could be part of the problem. Today’s youth are just as likely to spend an afternoon following school hours playing Madden on the PlayStation rather than actually playing football for their high school. Likewise, kids may be more adept at fighting a wave of invaders in Call of Duty but would struggle to actually run down the street – let alone into battle.
“We don’t have kids in organized sports as much, due to concerns over injuries, as well as one of the costs,” explained Sanders. “Some parents can’t afford to get their kids into outside activities, which can be quite costly. As a result, we are getting rounder and softer candidates for the military.”
Recruits Need to Get in Shape Before Basic Training
Basic training used to be where recruits would receive their initial military skills, while also getting in better shape to do the job. Today, many potential recruits need to get in shape first before they can go to basic.
Consider it a “pre-school” for the military, but it is where they may be slimmed down first.
“The Army is now recognizing this need, and there could be pre-Army training much like the United States Marine Corps that has offered a pre-training program where recruits receive a deferment to get in shape,” said Sanders.
“It would be ideal if the military had lots of young people who were in excellent shape when they were recruited; however, based on the obesity epidemic in America, it is not surprising that they are having to reduce their standards to find enough recruits,” added Katie Holton, associate professor in the department of Health Studies and the Department of Neuroscience at American University.
“The military does offer physical training during the work day, so there is ample opportunity for new recruits to increase their fitness level,” Holton told ClearanceJobs. “I think the piece that is truly missing is nutrition. Optimal physical ability is easier to obtain if individuals have fitness time combined with a high-quality diet. While I empathize with the difficulty of feeding such a large number of people a healthy diet, I also believe that diet quality could be vastly improved for our troops.”
It may not just be the military that will struggle with out-of-shape personnel. Many government agencies may also need to install programs to toughen up and shape up their staff. Studies have shown that exercise reduces the levels of the body’s stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.
Encouraging fitness could thus be seen as a return on investment to promote better workers across industries.
“Other government agencies could offer to pay for some fitness time during the day, which would be a great way to support their workforce; however, I do not think they can ‘require’ physical activity as the military does – unless physical fitness is related to their job duties like in the military,” explained Holton.
The FBI already makes physical training a part of the workweek, and other agencies may need to follow suit. Encouraging some activity away from the desk should be seen as aiding in productivity as well. It also doesn’t need to be as intense as basic training or training for the Olympics.
“We need to understand that there is a lot more than running up and down a hill,” said Sanders. “We are seeing that the government sector is starting to put in at least 30 minutes of PT time into the work day. But we have a long way to go.”
Rather than requiring fitness which may not be essential to the job, incentivizing overall healthier lifestyles is an emerging part of many human resource offices.
“We want people to move more and there are some businesses who are incorporating health promotion program planning, including things like step challenges, incentive programs for hitting health-related goals, encouraging ‘walking meetings,’ and supplying treadmill desks, or access to group exercise classes for free,” suggested Holton. “However, if we truly want to affect this health crisis we also need to address the nutrition piece.”
That could include nutrition education, as well as encouraging people to bring their lunches from home with recommendations for healthy choices, being more conscientious about food offerings during meetings or in break rooms, and offering information about how specific dietary choices may be tied to poorer health outcomes.
“The field of health promotion has really spearheaded a lot of this important change in workplaces,” Holton continued. “But there is still much to be done.”