Army Recruitment: Study Shows Poor Fitness, High Obesity Levels Among Army Recruits—Especially From Southern States

Kos Temenes
By Kos Temenes
April 5, 2023US News
Army Recruitment: Study Shows Poor Fitness, High Obesity Levels Among Army Recruits—Especially From Southern States
U.S. Army trainees exercise during 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)

A new study has revealed that injuries among army recruits are costing the U.S. government millions of dollars in rehabilitation and compensation costs. Injuries have been surging at an alarming rate—and particularly for recruits from the South.

The study, published in the medical journal “Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases,” found that of almost 100,000 trainees in 2017, nearly 35 percent sustained at least a musculoskeletal injury. Half of those recruits were from Southern states.

The highest rates of injuries were reported in recruits from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina—closely followed by New York and Rhode Island.

Official data from the Council on Foreign Relations shows that in terms of representation, Southern states provide the largest number of young army recruits.

Figures provided by the Military Times show that medical costs linked to treating musculoskeletal injuries in recruits cost the government almost $15 million on 2017—with roughly half of that amount allotted to recruits from Southern states.

Recent years have shown a steep decline in physical fitness among new recruits. This has raised some concern among army planners, especially since high school sport participation has also declined and obesity in children has reached epidemic levels.

Research from the National Library of Medicine had determined that 17 percent of U.S. children are now obese, with a gradual increase observed for decades.

Obesity rates are particularly prevalent in the Southern United States compared to other regions. Researchers have identified a variety of factors that could be contributing to the issue, from restricted access to healthcare and fitness facilities to unhealthy diets. These factors are exacerbated by the larger proportion of low-income households in Southern regions.

Musculoskeletal injuries have been a long-standing concern for army planners. For this reason, the Army Combat Fitness Test—or ACFT—was created, which soldiers must pass every year to remain in service. Higher test scores often facilitate an increased chance of promotion.

The impact on basic training injuries was negligible, however, as many recruits would enter the military straight out of civilian life. According to Staff Sgt. Krista Osborne, the Army’s 2022 drill sergeant of the year, new recruits would enter without either the ability to—or prior knowledge on how to—perform the exercises or the test correctly, reported last October.

Obesity remains one of the fundamental issues confronting the U.S. Army. A large number of applicants do not comply with the service’s body fat standards. In 2022, the Army initiated a 90-day pre-basic training course directive specifically aimed at recruits with a higher body fat index of up to 6 percent over the limit.

Although body fat percentages can vary among soldiers, the maximum limit (pdf) is 20 percent for young males and 30 percent for females, respectively.

The graduation rate for those recruits who complete the pre-basic course is reasonably high, at 90 percent. The course promotes a healthy eating routine and requires two daily workouts for applicants, who move on to basic training afterwards. A similar program is being implemented by the Navy.

While army leaders, including Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, have repeatedly asserted that standards will not be lowered, several branches of the military have started to sway toward a more lax approach.

An announcement by the Air Force on April 3 saw a drastic loosening of restrictions. The body-fat limits went up from 20 percent to 26 percent for men, while the previous threshold of 30 percent for women was increased to 36 percent.

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