Obesity and poor fitness, in combination or alone, have serious consequences on both an individual and societal level. This includes poor health now and in the future as well as an economic cost (in the billions per year!) that includes medical expenses as well as indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lower productivity in the workplace.
This is particularly alarming in children since obesity at a young age sets up a cycle that leads to lower levels of activity that can make the condition worse over time. In both children and adults, overweight and obesity are associated with low physical fitness and many people who are at a “normal” weight are unfit as well.
Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit the ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities. In fact, many young people are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness and being overweight. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
A report from the Council for a Strong America finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits 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. A 2010 report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the ominous title, “Too Fat to Fight.” (A follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” suggests that the situation hasn’t improved).
Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Large numbers of draftees who failed the induction exams due to physical reasons during WWI and WWII 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 1950’s 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.
A recent study also examines the impact of obesity and poor fitness on careers in the military. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training are more likely to sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity and lower levels of physical activity is higher in states in the south and southeast. Considering that these are among the states send the most recruits to basic training, this limits a great many people from potential military service.
Taken together, these reports suggest that the continuing trend of obesity and poor fitness among American children may have national security implications. This emphasizes the fact 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 will motivate our leaders to implement effective exercise and nutrition programs in schools.