America’s newest national security threat: Obesity

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The viability of an all-volunteer military to maintain its competitive advantage over near-peer competitors has recently come into question by lawmakers, senior military leaders and scientists. From recruiting to readiness and retention to retirement, physical inactivity and obesity pose national security threats that the U.S. military cannot fight alone. 

During a recent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, deputy commandant for the Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, testified that the past year has been “arguably the most challenging in recruiting history,” mainly due to candidates not meeting physical standards or having a criminal record. This statement comes on the heels of Pentagon data showing that only 29 percent of American youth are eligible for military service, and a mere 2 percent of 17-to 21-year-olds are both eligible and have the propensity to serve. 

In that same hearing, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) stated “I’m worried we’re now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force,” which is supported by evidence on the impact of low physical activity and obesity on military readiness. Multiple studies across hundreds of thousands of military service members show low physical fitness and obesity, each a direct consequence of physical inactivity, to be highly correlated with musculoskeletal injuries. Musculoskeletal injuries have been labeled the number one medical impediment to military readiness, annually accounting for 25 million days of limited duty across all military branches and costing the Department of Defense $3.7 billion in medical treatment. 

Public health evidence indicates that no help is on the way for the U.S. military. One recent study found that COVID-19 is responsible for a spike in obesity among an American youth population that already had 19.7 percent (14.7 million) of its members being categorized as obese. Meanwhile, a whopping 76 percent of American youth fail to meet federal physical activity guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional evidence shows that Southern states, which are known for their higher rates of obesity and physical inactivity and which happen to be the most fertile ground for military recruiting, produce Army recruits who are significantly less physically fit and more likely to sustain musculoskeletal injuries than recruits from the rest of the country.

The public health and military communities have separately identified obesity and physical inactivity to be threats to our nation’s health and security. These communities recognize that a bootstrap mentality that relies on individual Americans to “get in shape and lose weight” has not worked. What will work are policies and systems that increase access to healthier food options and increase opportunities for physical activity where Americans live, learn, work, commute, play and pray. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy recognized the importance of physical activity and healthy nutrition for national security, establishing what is now known as the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition

While facing near-peer threats that are at their highest point since the Cold War, it is time that the National Security Council prioritize obesity and low physical activity in the national security strategy and provide the guidance and resources to help our military maintain its force structure and lethality. 

With a nation more divided than perhaps any time in modern history, it is also high time for our elected and appointed leaders at national, state and local levels to narrow this divide by weaving evidence-based solutions for increasing physical activity and decreasing obesity into the fabric of our culture, such as the National Youth Sport Strategy, Active People, Healthy Nation and the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan.

If implemented, these national strategic plans, along with other state-, municipal- and territorial-level obesity and physical activity plans will provide the solutions required to ensure the short- and long-term viability of our all-volunteer force. 

Failure to address the physical inactivity and obesity epidemics, within and outside our military population, will weaken our global position.

Daniel B. Bornstein, Ph.D. is chair of the Military Settings Sector of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan. Previously, he was a tenured professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance and director of the Center for Performance, Readiness, Resiliency, and Recovery at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. 

Tags Air Force Army Marines Navy Obesity in the United States Thom Tillis Thom Tillis

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