Military Obesity Rates Soar, Compounding Recruitment Challenges

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October 19, 2023
Soldiers take part in a drill in Pocheon, South Korea

Obesity rates among active-duty servicemembers doubled in the past decade, and antiquated policies and incomplete data have complicated efforts to combat the trend, according to a new report from the American Security Project.

Military obesity rates across the active duty jumped from 10.4% in 2012 to 21.6% in 2022, according to the study, the findings of which were released on Oct. 12. This mirrors a national trend that has shrunk the military’s recruitment pool and led to billions of dollars in associated health care costs.

Today, 68% of active-duty servicemembers are either overweight or obese, and eating disorders in the military increased by approximately 79% between 2017 and 2021, the report said.

Although obesity in the U.S. and the military is not new, the seemingly rapid increase in the rate of overweight troops could renew concerns over military readiness, as obesity is a primary contributor to in-service injuries and medical discharges, the report said.

Furthermore, the report found that the military’s inconsistent use of body mass index (BMI) data and social stigmas surrounding the treatment of obesity are hampering efforts to combat it. According to the report, the armed forces should treat obesity as a chronic disease.

“The Department of Defense’s influence over the active-duty environment allows it to successfully mitigate this crisis by applying evidence-based treatments and controlling contributing factors such as diet, exercise, sleep, and stress,” the author, Courtney Manning, wrote.

The findings are part of a broader national trend that has also shrunk the military’s recruitment pool, as the services struggle to find eligible applicants who meet the physical requirements for enlistment.

In April, Gen. Randy A. George, then the Army’s vice chief of staff, and Adm. Lisa M. Franchetti, the vice chief of naval operations, told members of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee that the Army, Navy and Air Force will not hit their enlistment goals this year. George has since been confirmed as the Army’s chief of staff, while Franchetti has been nominated to become the next CNO.

The Army fell about 15,000 soldiers, or 25%, short of its recruitment goal in 2022 but was able to improve on its situation for fiscal 2023, ending the year with nearly 55,000 recruiting contracts. The “stretch goal” for fiscal 2023 was 65,000.

The Air Force sought to recruit 26,877 new airmen in fiscal 2023 but fell short by nearly 2,700 people. And the Navy missed its goal of 37,700 new sailors by 7,450. And according to a December 2020 report from the Congressional Research Service, disqualification from joining the military based on inability to meet established weight standards has steadily risen since the 1970s.

Lawmakers are certainly aware of the issue and have held numerous hearings on the military’s recruitment woes.

Washington Democratic Rep. Marilyn Strickland, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an Oct. 13 email that obesity is a quality-of-life issue that must be addressed to “ensure an agile fighting force.”

“I am encouraged that the Department is seeking innovative ways, such as the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness system and the Future Soldier Prep Course, to ensure that we maintain standards of fitness and health,” Strickland said.

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