A very interesting piece in the New York Times today details how the Army is changing its conditioning program. The impetus for this policy change is twofold. First, functional training should better prepare soldiers for the physical challenges entailed in their duties. This seems like a great reason to overhaul the Army's physical fitness program. The second is the more depressing reason. Not surprisingly, more recruits today are more obese, weak, and generally out-of-shape than they were in previous generations. The article cites a recent report written by a commission of retired generals, admirals, and other civilian military leaders entitled "Too Fat to Fight." The authors of this report note that the rejection rate of potential recruits on the grounds of obesity increased 70% from 1995-2008. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that, when all the major disqualifiers for military service are combined, 75% of young people age 17-24 would be unable to join the military even if they wanted to. The generals and admirals see the current epidemic of obesity in the US as a threat to national security. The key proposed solution to this crisis is a call for investment in healthy food in our nation's schools:
We are calling on Congress to pass new child nutrition legislation that would (a) get the junk food out of our schools; (b) support increased funding to improve nutritional standards and the quality of meals served in schools; and (c) provide more children access to effective programs that cut obesity.
This is a tall order. Current political discourse in the United States does not seem to favor investment in the future. I'm sure that more than one demagogue in Congress would label such policies as "socialist" (the disparaging term apparently favored for any policy that seeks to invest in the human capital of our nation), despite the fact that the recommendations come from a cadre of eminent retired military officers.
School "nutrition" programs are in a pretty sorry state of affairs nationwide. I am reminded of the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror V, in which Doris the lunch lady says to to principal Skinner, "Don't bitch to me, boss man. Thanks to the latest budget cuts, I'm down to using Grade F meat!" (the ingredients of which are "Mostly circus animals, some filler"). We pack our kids' lunches because we don't want them eating the food available to them at school -- and we are lucky enough to live in an affluent school district!
A point not made in the "Too Fat to Fight" report is the decline in physical education opportunities. A fact sheet put together by the American Heart Association notes that "Only 3.8% of elementary schools, 7.9% of middle schools and 2.1% of high schools provide daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year. Twenty-two percent of schools do not require students to take any physical education at all." And, of course, as budgets get tighter, both school nutrition and physical education programs become attractive targets for cutting back (along with just about any other type of enrichment that doesn't directly translate into a standardized test score).
I hope we can find a way to make the necessary investments in the future. Reducing childhood obesity now will save us healthcare dollars in the long run and leave us better prepared for the many challenges -- military and otherwise -- of the twenty-first century.