The obesity epidemic that is sweeping across the United States has finally made its mark on the U.S. military. Spooked by concerns of overweight soldiers being incapable of doing their job the Pentagon has announced plans to rewrite body composition standards and the methods used to determine whether troops are too fat to serve. For the first time in 14 years the government is considering rewriting the fitness standards to create a more accurate way to determine whether a solider is unhealthy or simply has an untraditional body type. The current tests, such as the tape-test or BMI scale, are inaccurate they say and allow healthy soldiers to appear unhealthy and vice versa. The government also plans to roll out a plan to promote “healthy lifestyles” to whip flabby soldiers into shape.
The first step of the plan involves ditching the archaic methods currently used to determine health. Soldiers must maintain a body fat percentage below certain thresholds to be considered healthy; below 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women, respectively. The government currently uses measuring tapes and BMI charts to determine body fat percentage. Any solider that fails these test are put into remedial fitness programs that can have negative effects on their military careers and slow their progress through their career paths. Both forms of measurement are notoriously inaccurate. Individuals with high muscle mass often appear unhealthy due to their body composition despite being in better cardiovascular health than some of their overweight peers.
For the first time in recent military history the matter will be addressed primarily by military health professionals, many of them trained physicians and scientists. Up to this point the issue was handled by the Pentagon’s personnel division. These trained health care physicians call the BMI scale “fundamentally flawed at both ends of the spectrum” stating that it treats body builders and runners unfairly. Dr. Dympna Gallagher, the director of the body composition unit at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, commented on the BMI scale:
“When you have groups of individuals who are fit and highly trained, then BMI is absolutely useless,”
Doctors have been equally harsh on the tap-test utilized by the military. A cloth tape is used to measure neck and waist circumference, a tester then calculates estimated body fat. In 2013 Military Times carried out an experiment that showed the tape test was inaccurate ten out of ten times. Ten soldiers were chosen at random and tested in the most accurate method of testing body fat percentage, a full-body immersion tank. All ten test showed the test were inaccurate and that nine out of the ten tests overestimated the soldiers’ body fat percentage.
The healthcare professionals tasked with finding a more accurate measurement system have been given the difficult task of collecting more accurate data without raising testing costs. They’ve suggested promoting overall health and lifestyle changes until a new system is developed.
Several military officials have suggested promoting programs that involve eating right, exercising daily, getting sufficient sleep and not drinking too much. Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, claims that military fitness standards are focusing on the wrong aspect of fitness:
“I don’t want someone just to meet the body screening I want them to live a healthy lifestyle,”
Troxell pointed to the ever-dwinding pool of potential recruits and an ever-increasing number of overweight troops is adding to the military readiness crisis and rising healthcare costs. Reports show that 75 percent of young Americans are ineligible for military service, many of them are simply too fat to meet basic standards and are exempt from service. He went on to say that simply lowering standards to expand the applicant pool is simply unacceptable and that promoting healthy non-sedentary lifestyles is the most cost effective and realistic solution to the problem.
David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional science and human ecology at Cornell University who has studied military nutrition and obesity, agreed with Troxells notion, stating that health care costs currently consume about 10 percent of the Pentagon’s military budget.