Attrition: The Fat Barrier

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August 2, 2012: The U.S. Army has tightened its physical requirements for new recruits. From now on male recruits cannot have a body fat percentage higher than 24 percent (it used to be 26) and for females it's now 30 percent (it used to be 32). The army is doing this because it is reducing its personnel strength and more soldiers want to stay in. Thus the army needs fewer new recruits each year. Because of the high unemployment rate over the last four years, more people are trying to join. To do that they will have to be thinner or at least not obese. Body fat percentages greater than the new army standards are considered "fat" by the medical community. Moreover, most men with 24 percent (and women with 30 percent) body fat would appear chubby. Most soldiers, especially those in jobs requiring a lot of physical activity have closer to 15 percent body fat (22 percent for women). New male recruits with 24 percent body fat have six months to get it down to 20 percent and keep it there.

The problem is that Americans have, in the last two decades, become very fat and out-of-shape. There are 32 million male Americans of prime military age (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices only 13 percent of them (4.2 million) are physically eligible for service. Each year the armed forces have to recruit 150,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year recruiters have to convince about two percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little, and doesn't pay enough attention in school. You not only have to be physically fit enough to join, you also have to be smart enough and have no criminal record.

The enormous growth in computer entertainment and subsequent massive reduction in the amount of exercise teenage boys get is the major reason for the body fat percentage crisis. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. Some 57 percent of potential recruits are not eligible because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. Many of these big folks are eager to join and are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist. Few return light enough to sign up.

During World War II the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.

The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the service, especially the army, had to change its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, four years ago, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks.

The additional basic training time was, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills were expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training was also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since. But with the decline in exercise, and growth in obesity among teenagers, the army needed the extra week to get these recruits to look like soldiers and not out of shape video-gamers carrying real guns.

 


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