As War Drums Pound, Study Finds Two-Thirds of Active Duty US Military Are Overweight or Obese

US military overweight
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Aaron Ansarov., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hamas terror attacks on Israel have stoked the flames of tension throughout the Middle East and the world at large, and has Americans worried about what role our country will play. But this shouldn’t be viewed as an incident that happened in a vacuum.

President Biden’s disastrously executed withdrawal from Afghanistan opened the floodgates for nefarious actors to make bold moves, testing our resolve and ability to keep the world order.

First came the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thought to topple the Eastern European country in 72 hours. It is well into its second year, with billions of dollars of our military and humanitarian aid pouring into the country.

As if this proxy war with Russia isn’t enough to bring up the temperature on the world stage, the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas have many worried or hoping, depending on their political flavor, that the United States will be forced to put boots on the ground in a Middle East conflict yet again. With the President declaring a new old axis of evil in his last Oval Office address, those who lived through the Gulf War and the previous forever war feel a sense of deja vu.

But this is no longer 1991. Or even 2003. The question now is, are Americans physically ready to fight the next great World War?

A different weight category

The American Security Project recently published its results on an analysis of the fitness level of the United States military. The results are hard to swallow.

The project found that over two-thirds of active-duty servicemembers are overweight or obese. To put that into a different perspective, the report states that only 31% of servicemembers are at a healthy weight.

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That’s less than one-third of the military force that isn’t too fat for the uniform they wear. The report leans in on the obvious conclusion that our military’s expanding guts will inevitably harm our ability to defend ourselves.

It’s not too often you see an overweight Russian or terrorist who can barely zip up their suicide vest. Those who seek to destroy all things free and good in this world, like Iran, China, and Russia, tend to keep their soldiers and, in general, their population relatively lean and mean.

The same cannot be said about the West, particularly the United States. 

Two problems

The United States military has struggled with weight and fitness for decades. Still, data has shown a sharp increase in obesity.

Department of Defense data shows that the obesity rate in the military has more than doubled in the last decade from 10% to a whopping 21%. A closer examination of the data shows typical trends, such as soldiers getting heavier as they age – something any American can relate to regardless of service status.

But is this an indication of something concerning, or are the services using outdated methods to measure fitness in the ranks? The answer is it’s both.

The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps use different methods to measure physical fitness and health. Any veteran can attest to the looming fear of a fitness evaluation, with many being more anxious about the dreaded tape measure than the actual fitness components such as running, pushups, pullups, and situps.

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I can relate – I never had an issue running within my time frame, and I almost always maxed out my situps and pushups. However, the waist measurement always caused me to break out in cold sweats because even though I could run faster than many of my fellow servicemembers and carry all of my gear for long periods, I never knew where that tape would fall.

A few inches too low around my hips, and I could face discharge. Not only has the Pentagon failed to modernize technical aspects of the service, but they’ve also failed to standardize and modernize how we measure fitness.

However, we can’t ignore that this country is getting fatter.

A matter of national security

Studies show that more than half of young Americans are obese, and less than one-quarter of Americans aged 17 to 24 qualify both academically and physically for military service. Additionally, one in four potential military recruits are turned away because of their weight, making it the number one disqualifier for military recruitment.

This year, the Army, Navy, and the Air Force are reporting that they will not hit their enlistment goals. The American Security Project rightly raises alarms over the harm we are causing in our ability to defend not just our own country but fight abroad, as so many believe is inevitable given the current state of international affairs.

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The report’s military expert, Courtney Manning, poses an interesting argument. She states that the rise in military obesity:

“…isn’t a moral failing; it’s a health crisis.”

Ms. Manning goes on to write:

“Framing obesity as an issue of insufficient willpower or discipline prevents soldiers from seeking and receiving treatment…”

She argues that instead of kicking out overweight troops or using punitive measures like withholding promotion until able to “skinny down,” the military should view this as a health issue versus a reflection of the soldier’s ability to execute self-discipline. Separating the weakening of the value of self-discipline from the quantifiable health of the military misses the mark.

Both can be true at once

Taking away the obvious detestability of terrorists, the Russian and Chinese governments, and the ideology of Iran, there are universal traits they all share – discipline and dedication. The culture of the United States and its military does not exude discipline and dedication; in fact, it downplays both and, at times, villainizes both values.

This country’s young men and women are not physically equipped to fight a World War because they are not mentally prepared. One must have discipline and dedication to withstand prolonged conflicts and trials of character. 

In short, we are fat and weak because we are equally flabby and delicate in our morals and values. The illness of obesity cannot be healed without a treatment plan focused on the tricky bits that make us successful.

Without self-discipline, sound morals, and universal values, our military is nothing more than a bloated welfare state in uniform. Is the United States prepared for the next World War?

Absolutely not, and we should stop pretending we are. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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