Military historians and experienced combat troops know that one of the key elements of success in battle is physical fitness. Thousands of years ago young troops were told by their battle experienced elders; “the more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war.” Combat troops, especially infantry, easily accept this wisdom and constantly strive to get in shape and stay in shape. But over 90 percent of military personnel do not have this incentive.
In in the 21st century, with all its gadgets and high-tech weapons, one of the essential elements of victory for the infantry is still physical fitness. Yet the majority of potential recruits in most countries (including China) are rejected for being out of shape. Usually it’s because the candidates are overweight or have not had much physical exercise for a long time. In the U.S. recruiters will often ask the most promising of these rejects if they are willing to undertake a conditioning program on their own time so that in a few (up to six) months they will be in shape to join. Some of these men and women do lose the weight and get in shape.
But that’s just the beginning. In countries like the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia high levels of fitness are demanded from all those who wish to stay in uniform. It’s not enough to get into shape once, you have to keep in shape. That often becomes very difficult. The physical fitness crises mainly has to do with too much food and not enough exercise even for those in uniform. Overweight troops have long been a problem, especially if they do not have a physically demanding job (as the infantry do). The air force has a lot of jobs like that and a recent survey found some bases where over 40 percent of personnel were overweight. In response the air force changed menus in its dining halls and what snacks were allowed in stores on base. More exercise programs were created and physical fitness standards are being enforced.
By service the air force is the fattest (6.7 percent overweight) and the marines the thinnest (1.2 percent overweight). Weight is more of a problem with older troops. Thus 6.6 percent those 40 or older are overweight, compared to only 1.6 percent of those under 20. As in the civilian world, women have a harder time with weight. Fifteen percent of military personnel are female and about half of them are currently overweight.
Ever since conscription was eliminated (in the early 1970s) the American military has periodically cracked down on personnel who were not fit. The military would discharge troops who were fat, although a fair amount of leeway was given. The military makes an effort to get chubby troops down to a safe weight. But each year overweight troops who fail to lose the excess heft are discharged from the service. For many of those who served in a combat zone, and dealt with the stress via food, they are just another casualty of war. A career dies even if the soldier involved does not. The air force, however, needs skills more than physical fitness for most of its jobs and was always the most lax about strictly enforcing the standards.
The U.S. Army found another problem in Iraq and Afghanistan; support troops who rarely left their fortified bases putting on weight because the constant stress (and unavailability of booze and sex) caused many troops to seek out tobacco and “comfort food” as a legal “drug.” It was a struggle to persuade these troops that more exercise was healthier and just as likely to reduce stress as loading up on favorite foods or taking up smoking. The military has also found that those with the mental grit and toughness to undertake regular exercise were also more resistant to combat trauma and stress in general.