Pentagon looks to trim the fat by changing health standards

Pentagon looks to trim the fat by changing health standards

Marine Corps officer candidates perform a timed 3-mile run during their initial physical fitness test on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., on Jan. 20, 2016. The test included the run and timed crunches and pullups. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick H. Ownes)

By Tracy Fuga

With the New Year right around the corner, healthy eating resolutions are at the forefront of people’s minds. And with the Pentagon expected to unveil a new force-wide policy governing body-fat standards, sticking with this year’s resolutions is more crucial than ever.

The new rules are likely to change how the military defines and evaluates body composition, and that will determine who is too overweight to serve.

While the Pentagon establishes minimum requirements for health standards, allowing each of the services to enforce stricter standards if they choose, the looming change comes as military data suggests obesity rates among troops are growing at an alarming rate. Today, nearly 8 percent of the military is clinically overweight. That’s way up from 2001, when it was less than 2 percent of the total force, according to Department of Defense data. Obesity rates are highest among women, blacks, Latinos and older service members. 

Pentagon officials familiar with the policy review say it is focused on the use of body mass index (BMI), which fails to account for different body types and doesn’t distinguish between muscle mass and fat mass. In addition, the distribution of body weight, or more generally the shape of someone’s body (pear vs. apple) is a key predictor of health risk.

Current policy requires service members to maintain body fat levels below a threshold of 28 percent for men and 36 percent for women. If the service member fails at meeting these requirements, they must undergo a “tape test” to estimate their body fat percentage.  Critics of the tape test assert that it is flawed and doesn’t account for muscle either.

Additionally, tape test failures can ruin a service member’s career; the failures are recorded in official personnel records and can adversely affect troops’ promotion prospects. Repeated failures can result in involuntary separation from the service.  

Top military leaders say that while details of the policy might change, underlying fitness standards should not.

“If we do that, we have a potential liability on the battlefield,” Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this year. “The minute we lose that competitive advantage in combat because our enemies are training harder than we are, we’ll have more problems than we have right now.”

The possibility of being involuntarily separated from service or losing out on a promotion means that it’s essential to stick to those resolutions. Some tips to doing that include breaking up your goal into smaller goals. Commit to running a mile 30 seconds faster than you’ve done previously or stop drinking soda (or pop, depending on what region you’re from) in the dining facility. Find a workout buddy who will hold you accountable.

How do you stick to your resolutions? Do you have any goals for 2017?


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