A nation becoming unfit to serve

Taking action to reverse the obesity epidemic has never been more critical to the future health and security of our nation.  Today, nearly two-thirds of adults are overweight or have obesity and one in five children are obese.  This unhealthy trend has caused more and more Americans to be deemed “medically unfit for service,” shrinking the pool of eligible recruits.  Ret. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe from 2011-2013, has stated that the two biggest threats to our country’s long-term security are the  ever-expanding waistlines of young civilians and the effect obesity has on dwindling defense budgets that must now be stretched to cover obesity-related illnesses.
 
America’s physical activity deficiency has become one of the top reasons that nearly 75 percent of Americans ages 17-24 are unfit to serve our nation.  Military service is inherently physically demanding, requiring significant physical strength and endurance in order to succeed, which is why many assumed that active military members would be immune from the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, more recent statistics show that the U.S. military discharges more than 1,200 first-term enlistees every year because they cannot maintain a healthy weight and fitness level.  In fact, between 1995 and 2008, 140,000 potential recruits failed their military entrance physicals due to an unhealthy weight—a 70 percent increase over the previous 13 years.
 

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Furthermore, unhealthy lifestyles are significant contributors to the rising cost of providing health care services to the nation’s active and retired military personnel and their families. The cost of treating obesity-related problems to TRICARE, the military’s health care system, is over $1 billion per year, which makes it the second only to the treatment of tobacco-related illness. 
 
Today, we honor our nation’s veterans and thank them for their service. However, we must ensure that these brave men and women and those who hope to serve and protect our nation have access to the tools and resources they need to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.   Specifically, we must make sure that Americans are healthy enough to serve their country by providing access to safe places to play sports and be physically active.  And we must instill in them basic knowledge about healthy lifestyles and help them make healthy choices in their everyday lives.
 
Earlier this year, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the Fit to Serve Act, to specifically target those youth and their families. This measure presents a cost-effective and concrete approach to help increase physical activity and promote healthy weight in military-aged men and women. The measure promotes joint use agreements between military athletic facilities and their surrounding communities to increased access to safe and well-equipped active environments.  Additionally, the legislation would help educate recruits and military personnel about healthy weight and enhance physical training opportunities for active duty personnel working to meet the rigorous fitness standards of special units.
 
I believe these measures would enable Americans to combat the tide of inactivity that has allowed the obesity epidemic to threaten our national preparedness. As it stands, only 3.8 percent of U.S. elementary schools, 7.9 percent of U.S. middle schools and 2.1 percent of U.S. high schools provide daily physical education for students, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  In fact, only 29 percent of high school aged students receive the recommended levels of physical activity each week and fewer than 15 percent of schoolchildren currently walk or bike to school.  Comparatively, in 1969, approximately 50 percent of children walked or biked to school.
 
By adopting these steps to better educate people about what is a healthy weight and increasing the availability of safe places to play in their communities across the country, we can give our recruits and our military a well-deserved fair shot at good health for a lifetime. 

Foster-Simeon is a member of the Board of Directors for the Campaign to End Obesity, president of the United States Soccer Foundation, and a veteran of the United States Navy.