The prevalence of overweight and obesity among American adults and children has been increasing over the past several decades. This “obesity epidemic” has serious consequences on both an individual and societal level. Obese individuals are at higher risk for a long list of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Obesity has a high economic cost (more than $1 billion per year!) that includes medical expenses to treat obesity-related illnesses as well as indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lower productivity in the workplace.
Among children, obesity can cause diseases that typically occur in adults such as type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes), high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This predisposes these children to heart disease, which may lead to heart attacks and death at an early age. Additionally, obesity at a young age sets up a cycle that leads to lower levels of activity that can make the condition worse with age. In both children and adults, overweight and obese are associated with low physical fitness and many people who are at a “normal” weight are unfit as well.
Much of the focus is on the health and economic consequences of obesity, as well it should be. But two reports published within the past two years suggest that obesity, particularly among young people, may have national security implications.
One of these reports, from the Armed Forces Surveillance Center, finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits that are deemed medically unfit for service. Military training and service is physically demanding, requiring a high level of strength and endurance. These attributes are more likely to be lacking among overweight recruits. Equally troubling is the fact that poor physical fitness disqualifies a high percentage of young men and women who are at a “healthy” weight. The other report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the unsubtle title, “Too Fat to Fight.” An estimated 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 fall into this category!
It is true that military training is designed to improve the fitness of young recruits, but the physical training will take longer – and potentially take away from other training – if the incoming recruits are very unfit. This is a similar problem faced by coaches whose players haven’t kept up with their off-season training. Practice time has to be sacrificed in order to get the athletes back in shape, likely impacting team performance.
Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Large numbers of draftees who failed the induction exams due to physical reasons during World War I and World War II resulted in changes in physical education and nutrition programs in schools. Poor fitness among American children also led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in the 1950s and an emphasis on physical fitness testing and education among school-aged children. In recent years participation in physical education has declined, resulting in the current generation of overweight, unfit young people.
The “Too Fat to Fight” report suggests that schools are critical to improving the health and military-readiness of our children. Changes to school lunch and physical education programs are needed, but this is not a new recommendation. In fact, nutrition and exercise recommendations for children and schools already exist, but they are not followed, largely for political reasons. Perhaps the current condition of poor health and fitness among military recruits motivate our leaders to implement effective exercise and nutrition programs in schools.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.