Almost 10,000 US Army Soldiers Slipped Into Obesity During Pandemic, New Study Finds

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
April 4, 2023Health
Almost 10,000 US Army Soldiers Slipped Into Obesity During Pandemic, New Study Finds
U.S. Army trainees exercise in a course aimed at preparing potential enlistees who don't meet fitness or test standards, at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., on Sept. 28, 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Obesity rates surged throughout the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, and the U.S. military was not immune from the impact. According to new research, almost 10,000 U.S. Army soldiers slipped into obesity amid reduced physical training during the pandemic.

Researchers from the Center for Health Services Research (CHSR) at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, recently analyzed medical records of all active duty Army soldiers in the Military Health System Data Repository. The research findings, which were shared with NTD, found that 26.7 percent of soldiers who were healthy before the pandemic became overweight, and 15.6 percent of soldiers who were overweight before COVID-19 became obese during the pandemic.

The researchers, led by CHSR Director Tracey Perez Koehlmoos, broke the data into a pre-pandemic period from February 2019 to January 2020 and a pandemic period from September 2020 to June 2021. After excluding soldiers without complete records from both periods and those who were pregnant in the year before or during the study, the research team had 191,894 soldiers in the study cohort.

About 18 percent of soldiers were obese before the pandemic, compared to about 23 percent by 2021. That five-point shift translates to approximately 9,600 more soldiers slipping into obesity over the pandemic period.

Several pandemic-era policies aimed at social distancing and preventing the person-to-person spread of the virus likely contributed to the weight gains. Many gyms closed down, including on military bases. In some cases, gyms on military bases remained open but at significantly reduced capacity or with exercise visits by appointment only.

In March 2020, the Army delayed the rollout of its new fitness tests and only resumed fitness tests around the summer of 2021.

With less access to exercise equipment and less concern about passing a fitness test, service members increasingly fell short of the physical standards to which they were accustomed.

Obesity Weighs on Military Readiness

The Army was not the only service that embraced pandemic-era restrictions that impacted physical fitness. By July 2020, the Navy canceled all its remaining fitness tests for personnel for the rest of the year.

Weight issues can have real tangible effects on the readiness of the military, which features a range of physically demanding jobs.

According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obese active-duty troops were 33 percent more likely to sustain musculoskeletal injuries. The CDC reported that the U.S. Department of Defense spends about $1.5 billion annually in obesity-related health care costs for current and former service members and their families and costs to replace unfit personnel as of 2022. “Lost workdays due to overweight and obesity for active-duty military personnel is 658,000 days per year.”

“The Army and the other services need to focus on how to bring the forces back to fitness,” Koehlmoos said.

America’s weight problems impact military readiness on both ends. While the number of obese active-duty Army soldiers grew during the pandemic, the pool of qualified potential military recruits shrank. A recent report by the American Security Project (ASP) estimated about 23 percent of Americans in prime recruiting age, between 17 and 24, would be qualified for military service without needing a waiver. Overweight problems represented the most common single disqualifying factor, impacting about 11 percent of the prime recruiting age group.

The Army already fell short of its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal by about 25 percent or about 15,000 recruits. ASP anticipates that recruiting shortfalls could compound in the ensuing years as the service needs to catch up with its 2022 shortfalls and deals with a shrinking pool of potential recruits.

ASP has recommended various options to address the impact overweight and obese Americans have on national security. The think-tank has proposed increased physical fitness for America’s youth and pre-accession fitness programs for prospective military recruits.

ASP also recommended tailoring fitness standards for specific military occupations.

“Many military-aged Americans are excluded from military eligibility due to their weight and fitness though they may possess the education, skills, and physical suitability for various mission-critical duties,” ASP wrote. “The idea that every soldier or Marine needs to be a rifleman first is outdated thinking that is no longer reflective of the battlespace in which our military is operating. For instance, a drone operator or accountant simply does not need to be as physically fit as those headed into infantry roles.”

The think tank also recommended greater automation for non-combat roles, allowing the military to do the same amount of work with fewer people if they can’t meet the required physical standards.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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